SACRAMENTO — Just four years ago, former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb was calling George Deukmejian, the then-attorney general on his way to becoming governor, a "career politician" and worse as the two men locked horns in a bitter Republican gubernatorial primary election.
And Curb was getting help from GOP state Sen. H. L. Richardson of Glendora, whose computer mailing firm sent out tens of thousands of broadsides against Deukmejian.
But this year, Curb and Richardson, the one-time allies, are opponents in the June 3 Republican primary for lieutenant governor.
And the two rivals are fighting to outdo each other in efforts to persuade Republican voters of their friendship and loyalty to Deukmejian. Both display the chief executive prominently in their television ads, hoping Deukmejian's appeal to Republicans will give them a little extra edge in what appears to be an increasingly close race.
Praise for Deukmejian
Curb, as he tours the state in an effort to win back the job he held from 1979-83, is effusive in his praise of Deukmejian.
"The longer I'm in politics, the more I like the Deukmejian type of view--common sense, balance, low key," he said during a recent interview.
Richardson, a combative conservative who once said Deukmejian lacked guts and criticized him for "kissy-mommy" politics, now calls himself "a fan" and describes the chief executive as a "very, very good governor."
The two are fighting it out for the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Leo McCarthy in the November general election. McCarthy is running unopposed in the primary.
They argue that Deukmejian needs a fellow Republican in the state's No. 2 job.
Importance of Office
The lieutenant governor's job, often maligned as being largely ceremonial and having no real power, is important because whoever holds the post fills in for the governor when he is out of state and is designated to succeed the chief executive should he be unable to fill out his term.
It is considered a natural springboard for someone with ambitions to become governor--although only one lieutenant governor in the last half century, Goodwin J. Knight in 1953, has moved up to the top office.
Deukmejian, running for reelection this year, has had strong philosophical disagreements with McCarthy. Despite past differences with Curb and Richardson, Deukmejian says he would be willing to give either a helping hand in the fall election.
Larry Thomas, directing Deukmejian's reelection campaign, said the governor "believes that either would be a welcome improvement over the current lieutenant governor."
Deukmejian posed with Richardson for the lawmaker's television commercials and said he would do the same for Curb. But Curb already had a clip showing him side by side with the governor. It was filmed the night Deukmejian defeated him in the 1982 GOP primary.
Despite the reputations of both Curb and Richardson for an explosive brand of politics, their fight in this GOP primary has been relatively calm.
Curb, 41, is working hardest to keep the campaign quiet. After early public opinion polls showed him to be enjoying a comfortable lead over Richardson, Curb decided that the best strategy was to avoid anything that might provide his opponent with exposure.
The former lieutenant governor has rejected repeated challenges by Richardson to debate. He also refuses to appear with Richardson at any event. While he allows interviews with individual news reporters, Curb has not held a single general news conference.
But there are signs that Curb's strategy may be backfiring. A statewide survey by the independent California Poll, released on Thursday, showed that Richardson had made up substantial ground, cutting Curb's lead from 19 points in March to only six as of early May. Curb was leading in the latest poll by 43% to 37%, with 20% undecided.
Richardson told The Times: "You can't leave me the state to run around in, which Curb has done, and not appear in front of the press, not appear in front of Republican groups, and still expect to sustain any kind of lead."
'Strategy Has Backfired'
McCarthy, who had been telling reporters that he expected to face Curb in November, said: "For the first time, I think perhaps Richardson can win. Curb's run-and-hide strategy has backfired."
McCarthy, however, dismissed results of the poll that showed Curb running slightly ahead of him, by two points, and Richardson trailing by 10 points--substantial gains by both Republicans since March.
"For five months, they both have been taking shots at me. That has to take its toll, so it doesn't worry me," McCarthy said. "After the primary when we are going head to head, you are going to see very different poll numbers."
Curb's low-key battle plan has underscored his desire to project what he calls a "new" and "more mature" image to voters after a relatively short but contentious political career.