Televised campaign debates and a state ballot initiative on drinking water relate only peripherally to the job of a U.S. senator. But the two matters figure in the selection of the next senator from California.
Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston is satisfied that Republican challenger Ed Zschau appears to have painted himself tightly into a corner over the clean drinking water initiative, Proposition 65.
And while Zschau agonizes over the toxics issue, Cranston squirms over what to do about growing demands that he meet Zschau in face-to-face television debates.
From the beginning, Cranston has been a strong backer of the clean-water ballot measure. But Zschau, a newcomer to statewide politics, has reached out to befriend both warring sides--environmentalists on one hand and business and agriculture on the other.
Zschau has watched as expectations grew in both camps. One side or the other now seems bound to be furious when the Los Altos congressman announces his stand on the initiative. He has promised not to duck it.
"This is the most significant environmental issue to be on the ballot in years. His position is something of a litmus test. The choice couldn't be clearer," said Tom Epstein, campaign director for the campaign on behalf of Proposition 65.
On the other hand, there is an equally emphatic view of a Zschau farm-area supporter: "It's absolutely, vitally important that he oppose this. It is a litmus test issue."
In addition to farmers, business leaders, particularly those in Zschau's home-base Silicon Valley electronics industry, feel threatened by Proposition 65.
"It would virtually prohibit the use of many of the chemicals that are essential to the manufacturing of high-technology electronics," said John Greenagel, public relations manager for Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale.
Proposition 65 would require officials to conduct a comprehensive inventory of chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects and impose new limits on their discharge. Additionally, citizens would be given new rights to sue in court to enforce the law.
Sources close to Zschau said the congressman has all but concluded that he must come out and oppose the initiative without delay. But publicly, Zschau is still mulling over his dilemma, as he has been for several weeks.
His comments have sent mixed messages.
"Frankly, I'm very concerned about some of the provisions of this initiative," he said to one group.
He told another: "To protect ourselves and our children from potential cancer-causing substances in our drinking water is an important objective."
On the matter of campaign debates, Cranston professes to be interested. But the senator has bobbed and weaved and dived for cover time and again. He is now being blamed in political circles for trying to duck face-to-face televised debates with his challenger.
At a meeting with the California League of Women Voters on Thursday, a Cranston aide refused to agree to a package of three debates, according to a league spokeswoman. The senator's campaign continues to demand that three minor party candidates be included in any debate.
Zschau has accepted without conditions the league proposal for two hourlong televised debates with Cranston, one Oct. 5 and another in the middle of the month. A third debate, proposed for late this month, would include the two candidates and the nominees of three minor parties.
Cranston's hesitation has fueled speculation that the gaunt 72-year-old senator fears side-by-side comparison with his sandy-haired, 46-year-old challenger. Perhaps even more important is the fact Cranston leads handily in public opinion polls without need of debate.
And there is little interest by Cranston strategists in agreeing to an appearance that would draw attention to Zschau, who admittedly suffers because he is widely unknown in California politics.
But stalling has its price. And Cranston finds himself scolded in newspaper editorials and teased by Zschau's supporters wearing T-shirts that demand debates. Zschau even hired an airplane to fly over Southern California with this taunting banner: "Alan Cranston Why Won't You Debate Ed Zschau?"