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Familiar Liberal Issues Stressed in McCarthy Senate Bid

October 05, 1987|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

Just south of the downtown high-rises, in a fusty two-room apartment with a child's crib squeezed into the tiny kitchen, threadbare furniture and peeling walls, California Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy looks at a doe-eyed 3-year-old looking back at him. McCarthy has come to see face-to-face the woebegone life of rearing children in Los Angeles on the minimum wage.

Another day, in a sweltering church activity center in Echo Park, 15 fragile old men and women hobble or are wheeled in for the dedication of an adult day care center. McCarthy promotes this project as a way to provide the elderly with "dignity"--offering them daytime group care so they can go home to their families at night and avoid nursing homes.

Political warhorse Leo Tarcisius McCarthy, 57, is on the campaign road, again.

Practical Matters

He is the leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Pete Wilson. But from the tone right now, this could be one of any of the other campaigns in McCarthy's 25 years in California politics--beginning with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1960s, the state Legislature in the 1970s and now the two-term lieutenant governor in the 1980s. That is old-fashioned constituent-group politics, championing the old and the sick and the poor and the near poor, the ethnics, the environmentalists and the union workers.

"Campaigning can't be all abstract issues," McCarthy said in an interview. "This is very much what I've been doing for years--bread-and-butter economic issues, the dignity of the elderly, the whole array of issues that face the families of this nation.

"What I'm trying to do is express the convictions that I have."

In the weeks since his April 29 declaration of candidacy, McCarthy has journeyed to a Korean Friendship Bell ceremony in Los Angeles' Koreatown, a convention of the National Education Assn., to the Soviet Union to talk to Jews who want out of the country. He has marshaled an AIDS parade, visited senior citizen centers from Orange County to Redding, joined a press conference on the suspected resurgence of Salvadoran death squads, attended a seminar on handicapped transit access, and spoken to meetings of the Sierra Club, the Nuclear Freeze movement and Latino leaders. This is but a sampler.

"What you are seeing is a very Democratic Democrat running for the U.S. Senate," said Washington-based political consultant Robert Shrum, a chief McCarthy strategist. "I think the era of Democrats running as ersatz semi-Republicans is over."

And this is music to the ears of McCarthy, who in elections past has found himself paying reluctant homage to more conservative themes of the day. Now he believes that he can follow the lead of California's U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, who ran his 1986 reelection campaign on a liberal like-it-or-lump-it premise.

Shrum and much of the campaign team behind Cranston have now signed up with McCarthy for what appears to be an even more formidable task--turning out a first-term Republican who is at peace with diverse elements of his own party and who has built strong bridges to important Democratic constituencies, notably show business activists and the Jewish community.

And first, standing between McCarthy and the opportunity to oppose Wilson in the November, 1988, general election, are two potential Democratic June primary rivals--television news commentator Bill Press, who is busily organizing and raising money in chic Westside circles of Los Angeles; and Secretary of State March Fong Eu, who still shows well in public opinion samplings despite a moribund campaign.

For his part, McCarthy is an oddly cold campaigner to have such an interest in social programs. His bearing appears starchy, and even his most heartfelt expressions are delivered in an off-nasal monotone. His smile edges close to being a smirk. He inspires less passion than respect even among his most ardent followers.

All of which is the reason his detractors say McCarthy faces the most daunting challenge of his career this campaign.

How can such a man reveal vivid contrasts with Wilson, himself a veteran of California's school of low-voltage constituent-group politics?

The answer, McCarthy hopes, is that times are changing; that the conservative, entrepreneurial tide of recent elections is receding.

"We're entering a period when people believe that individual solutions to their needs may not be as readily available as at the onset of the Ronald Reagan era. There is more interest in what government can do, and how it does it," said Richard Maullin of Fairbank, Bregman & Maullin, one of two polling firms hired by the McCarthy campaign.

Maullin says that not just the poor but the broad middle class of voters are now interested in high-quality, efficient government services because baby-boomers are having children of their own, and the parents of baby-boomers are entering old age.

Add to this the grit factor: McCarthy has been winning against the odds for years.

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