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Wilson Still Looking for Right Issue Against Feinstein

July 22, 1990|Linda Breakstone | Linda Breakstone covers politics for KABC-TV

Since the June primary, Republican Pete Wilson has been throwing political spaghetti against the wall in search of an issue that sticks.

He tried to embarrass Democrat Dianne Feinstein by recalling her support for Elizabeth Rose Bird in 1986. Next, he criticized the former San Francisco mayor for not signing the ballot argument for his "Speedy Trial" initiative. Then, he chastised her for running the "Hillside Strangler" ad during her primary campaign against Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. None stuck.

Wilson's latest--and most serious--attempt to land an issue is a campaign commercial: that Feinstein, as governor of California, would fill all state jobs according to a strict quota system. If this is his best after spending more than $8 million so far in the campaign, Wilson will most likely be running for re-election as senator, not governor, in 1994.

Sure, Feinstein blundered when she broached a proposal that could so easily be transformed into a political negative. During the primary, she pledged "to appoint women in proportion to their parity of the population--50%. To appoint people of color in proportion to their parity of the population."

Reporters quickly branded her Memorial Day vow to black ministers as a promise to abide by strict numerical quotas in making her appointments. Actually, she never used the term.

Even so, Feinstein has been back-pedaling on the issue ever since. Goals, not quotas, are what she now says she had in mind. At a press conference during the National Organization for Women's June convention, she explained: "Over a period of time, an administration reflects the people at large. That's always been the intent of it."

In the few appearances she has made since the primary, and in every word spoken by her political handlers since, it's clear that Feinstein wants to put her mistake behind her. "Dianne never used the word quota, does not believe in quotas, never supported quotas and never will--period," insists campaign manager William Carrick.

Enter Wilson. The Republican managers' polls undoubtedly show that quotas are political death for a candidate, especially among swing voters who will decide the November election. But can Wilson make the quota issue stick?

To be sure, if California voters were convinced that Feinstein would carry out her promise to hire by quota, she could lose. For the quota issue to pay off for Wilson, Californians can believe no less. Unfortunately for the senator, his own commercial gives them reason to doubt.

It begins with the charge that Feinstein would ignore experience, qualifications or ability in her appointments because quotas are her guides. In the next breath, however, the announcer essentially urges listeners not to worry, because in her nine years as mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein increased the number of women appointees by only 1%.

To make matters worse, Wilson's office issued a press release the day after the commercial debuted that asserted that "Feinstein's history of appointments falls far short of her gubernatorial promise to appoint women to 50% of the state's boards and commissions."

The Q-ad is no frivolous ad. Time has been reserved with some major-market TV stations through Aug. 19, at a cost of about $500,000.

"That commercial cancels itself out," claims Alan Arkatov, the Democratic media adviser who assisted Van de Kamp.

"In a way, (the conflicting message) was my concern," concedes Dick Dresner, Wilson's pollster. But, he said, the focus groups contracted by the Wilson campaign to assess the commercial's impact felt that "One, (Feinstein) was calling for quotas and, two, she didn't mean it. They saw her as just another politician."

Apparently, then, Wilson's real line of attack on Feinstein is not her reported fondness for the Q-word but what he claims to be her old-fashioned political pandering. "That theme might come up in several of these things before the campaign's through," predicted Wilson campaign manager George Gorton.

"The point of the ad is that she's pandering--just like Walter Mondale did--to important voter blocs in the Democratic Party in contradiction to her record on some subject," said Gorton. "She says she's an agent for change, but she's just an old-fashioned liberal."

If Wilson's anti-Feinstein buzzword turns out to be "pandering" and his goal to make Feinstein a female Walter F. Mondale, he'd be well advised to proceed gingerly. There are many elements in his own eight-year record in the U.S. Senate that smacks of "pandering"--acceptance of $243,000 in contributions from the savings-and-loan industry and his on-again-off-again support for requiring teen-agers to get parental consent for an abortion. Indeed, Feinstein planned to highlight his shifting abortion stance this weekend, when she and other statewide Democratic candidates showed up at the Republican convention.

Since the primary, Feinstein has not campaigned. Wilson has done nothing but campaign. And still he hasn't scored a solid hit. If the contest remains a wash, she'll win in November.

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