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Chances for GOP Realignment Fade With Ed Zschau's Negative Campaign

October 12, 1986|Joel Kotkin and Greg Critser | Joel Kotkin is West Coast editor for Inc.; Greg Critser is the magazine's Los Angeles contributing editor.

When he captured the GOP nomination last spring, Rep. Ed Zschau seemed to embody a new and appealing brand of progressive Republicanism. Zschau's candidacy rallied to Republican ranks a generation of well-heeled entrepreneurs and baby boomers previously uncommitted. Equally important, Zschau's high-tech roots gave Republicans a unique opportunity to identify with forces shaping the nation's industrial future. His combination of fiscal conservatism and moderation on social issues, reflective of Silicon Valley's laissez faire ethos, also promised to lure large numbers of Democrats and Independents into the Republican column.

Largely for these reasons, many Democrats regarded Zschau as something akin to a political nightmare. "It's all over for Alan," a veteran in Sen. Alan Cranston's campaign said at a San Fernando Valley political gathering early last summer. "Zschau's what Alan's always feared."

Today, however, many of the Democrats' fears have dissipated. Issues such as promoting innovation, entrepreneurialism and international competitiveness--hallmarks of Zschau's political past--have been missing from the Los Altos congressman's campaign. Instead, Zschau has launched a bitter negative campaign stressing such points as drugs, the death penalty and international terrorism.

This tactic has indeed dented Cranston's once-large lead. But in the process, Democratic strategists argue, Zschau has blown an opportunity to draw new elements--such as the sort of youthful voters catalyzed by Gary Hart--into the party of Ronald Reagan. "He was really a potentially dangerous agent of realignment. He could have drawn into the Republican party a whole new class of entrepreneurs and a lot of baby boomers," says 31-year-old Bill Bradley, Hart's 1984 Northern California political director.

Ironically, Zschau's hard-line campaign contradicts the findings of a key poll taken at the start of his race that showed a plurality of California's supposedly right-wing Republican electorate oppose such issues as giving aid to the Nicaraguan contras and intrusive social policies advocated by the religious right.

Zschau's tactics worry many of his closest supporters. Zschau spokesman Jim LeMunyon admitted that most of Cranston's GOP support comes from the moderate middle, Zschau's political base, not from the party's right wing.

The negativity has also dampened the enthusiasm for Zschau from high tech-oriented supporters in key areas such as Orange County. "As people are frightened by what the right is doing, things like Meese and the Supreme Court, they may be moving away from us because of the way the campaign has progressed," said Orange County attorney Bill Rauth, who represents a number of the area's leading entrepreneurial high-tech firms. "I fear sometimes that the real Ed Zschau doesn't seem to be coming through."

To Rauth and other key backers, "the real Ed Zschau" is something quite different from that projected in his television ads. Rather than running Zschau as a Reagan with a Yuppie face lift, these activists would like to see a campaign stressing such issues as maintaining R&D investment credits, boosting job training, improving education and the environment and taking a harder line against the protectionist policies of trading partners.

"Our whole focus on the quality of community life represents a revival of the old Progressive flavor," says Zschau activist D. Barton Doyle, a vice president of First Interstate Mortgage Co. "To us the government has a role in catalyzing (the economy) rather than just saying 'all we have to do is free everything up and everything will take care of itself.' "

Powerful generational experiences fuel attitudes like Doyle's. In contrast to their fathers' generation, when U.S. economic ascendancy seemed a permanent fact, today's aspiring business class has grown up in an age of uncertainty.

It was this kind of destabilizing experience that fueled much of the early 20th-Century's Progressive movement. Like Zschau's core backers, much of the earlier Progressive movement's leadership and support came from the entrepreneurial and professional communities. Their political muscle helped drive Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson to create a role for the federal government in the areas of competition, the environment and public safety. Today's strategists believe refashioning the old Progressive agenda to the current needs of the entrepreneurial class could give the GOP the majority party status it desires.

This strategy, however, was rejected in the name of political expediency by Zschau's political professionals. As LeMunyon puts it, "You can't win a race on economic competitiveness issues. We'd be 50 points behind."

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