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Cranston--the Right Stuff to Buck a Trend

November 06, 1986|KEITH LOVE | Times Political Writer

He was considered too old, too liberal and very likely to run out of his amazing luck. But on Wednesday he was Alan Cranston the Triumphant, the Democratic senator who bucked his state's Republican trend and vanquished his toughest challenger ever by 116,622 votes.

With his victory over Rep. Ed Zschau, a verdict that was not certain until 4 a.m., Cranston is headed toward legend status in California politics. He and Hiram Johnson are the only California senators to win four terms in this century, and Cranston is now the undisputed don of the state Democrats.

"I am grateful to all the people who care about the issues that I care about and that I raised in this campaign," Cranston said at a Wednesday morning press conference. "And I'm particularly delighted with my support from younger voters, who were the greatest source of strength in my campaign."

Favored by Young

The Los Angeles Times Poll showed that the 72-year-old senator beat the 46-year-old Zschau among voters who were under the age of 45. Cranston viewed that as validation of his efforts to end the nuclear arms race and to pass child-care and other family-oriented legislation.

Cranston won by running strong in Los Angeles County, by shaving Zschau just enough in the San Joaquin Valley and in Orange and San Diego counties, and by burying him in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He did it by selling his experience and consistency, which helped offset his liberal image. In speeches and television ads, he painted Zschau as a man who "flip-flops" on major issues, raising questions about Zschau's character.

And, near the end, Cranston stressed his independence, the perfect foil to President Reagan's last-minute appeal on behalf of Zschau.

"Alan Cranston is just a damn good instinctual campaigner," said David Doak, one of the senator's media consultants. "When Reagan came in for Zschau, Alan asked when Zschau was going to stand on his own feet. It was brilliant, the final blow. None of us would have thought to state it quite that way."

Cranston also went after victory the way a senator from a big, impersonal state must do it: He found an issue that people could connect to him and he rode it with all he had.

The issue was the environment. Because of the environmental legislation he has passed, Cranston's credibility on this issue was unassailable. While Zschau's environmental record is not bad, his opposition to Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative, allowed Cranston to offer another sharp contrast.

"I couldn't believe Zschau handed us that one," Doak said. "You rarely get somebody on the other side of the toxics issue, but that is what happened."

Zschau's business and agricultural financial backers were very opposed to the toxics initiative, and he argued that it would create a "legal blizzard."

High-Tech Waste

But he knew he was vulnerable because he was a former businessman from the so-called Silicon Valley, where toxic waste from the high-tech industry is a major problem.

The Times exit poll found that those who thought the toxics initiative was the most important issue in the campaign went for Cranston by 74% to Zschau's 24%.

"The environment was just a big issue for Cranston in the coastal areas and with Republican moderates," said Caltech political scientist Bruce Cain.

Cranston and Zschau spent at least $11 million each, making the campaign the most expensive in California history. The race--with its high-powered strategists, millions spent on television ads and intricate chess moves by two men who were far apart on many issues--will be studied for years by political scientists and consultants.

They will want to know how, in the age of Ronald Reagan, an aging, untelegenic liberal with 18 years of votes to defend could defeat a young, well-financed "new face," whose business background and fiscal conservatism appeared to make him the man for the time.

One answer is simple. Turnout was low, and though that usually helps Republicans, who are more likely to vote, this time it hurt Zschau. It was 51% in San Diego County, a battleground that was thought to favor the youthful, success-preaching Zschau. He beat Cranston there by 55% to 42%, but the droves of Republicans who stayed home hurt him.

Turnout was 59% in the Republican stronghold of Orange County. Zschau whipped Cranston by 171,000 votes, his biggest county margin. But he needed a much larger margin to offset Cranston's strength in Los Angeles and the San Francisco area.

Conservative Suspicions

Because of his moderation on social issues and his late conversion to aiding the Nicaraguan rebels, Zschau was always viewed suspiciously by Southern California conservative Republicans. Even Reagan's visit could not drive enough of them to the polls to help Zschau.

But ironically, Zschau also lost because he went too far to the right in the end in an effort to shore up his conservative base.

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