By David Siders
Published: Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Former Gov. Pete Wilson provided Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman a valuable endorsement in the GOP primary, when he declared she would be “tough as nails” on illegal immigration.

But what made that recommendation resonate for many conservatives – Wilson championed Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants – has become a liability now that Whitman is trying to win over Latino and independent voters.

Not surprisingly, Wilson, Whitman’s campaign chairman, has all but disappeared from public view.

“Pete Wilson was important before June 8,” conservative talk show host Ken Chiampou said in an interview this month with Whitman. “He doesn’t seem important now.”

To reduce Wilson’s role in Whitman’s campaign to the immigration issue or to one “tough as nails” radio ad, however, is to miss the significance of his involvement.

Early in the contest, Wilson’s support was significant in signaling to GOP insiders that Whitman, with no political experience, could run a credible campaign.

He came with a Rolodex full of donors and consultants, many of whom helped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger win election. He also had the perspective of being a former two-term governor and U.S. senator. If Whitman cared to talk strategy, he is the the only Republican to have defeated her Democratic opponent in an election.

Wilson beat Jerry Brown for Senate in 1982.

“Pete Wilson is radioactive to a lot of California voters, but to a lot of Republicans, he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, the guy on their side who knows politics and governing the best,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Her thinking probably is (that) the quality of his advice is probably worth the baggage that he brings to the electorate.”

Other politicians have come to similar conclusions about Wilson. He was Schwarzenegger’s campaign co-chairman in 2003, when Democrats also seized on Wilson’s ties to Proposition 187.

Wilson that year spent “hour after hour in Arnold’s backyard next to the swimming pool, going over issues with him,” said George Gorton, a former adviser to Wilson.

Wilson and Whitman were introduced by Sacramento-based Whitman strategist Jeff Randle, a former Wilson adviser Whitman hired in 2007. The three of them had dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles in spring or summer 2008, before Whitman had decided to run, Randle said.

In the following months, Wilson and Whitman spent perhaps 10 to 20 hours together, typically over dinners in Los Angeles, Randle said. They talked about similarities between California’s current economic condition and how it was when Wilson became governor in 1991. He advised her about negotiating with a Democratic Legislature and the use of veto power, among other things, Randle said.

Wilson was impressed by Whitman’s interest in policy and the “probing questions” she asked, Randle said.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former speechwriter for Wilson, said, “My understanding is it was an easy decision for him. … He was impressed.”

Wilson did not participate in detailed policy briefings for Whitman, nor is he a regular on daily campaign conference calls, according to GOP insiders. Wilson and Whitman did talk about immigration, but they did not dwell on it. Whitman has said she opposes Proposition 187.

Wilson, who turned 77 on Aug. 23, did not return telephone calls for comment.

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