Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican U.S. Senator Pete Wilson were locked in a tight battle for the governorship early today after a historic campaign that saw Feinstein driving to become the first woman governor in California.
Early absentee returns gave Wilson a slim lead, but exit polls, including one by The Times, showed the race too close to call. Ultimately, the outcome may be determined by as many as 500,000 absentee ballots that election officials will not begin to count until today.
According to the Times exit poll, which surveyed 6,960 voters in 150 precincts, Feinstein won among those who voted in person. Wilson, however, appeared to have won the heavy absentee vote, which election officials said may total 20% of the overall tally.
Victory, therefore, hinged on just how large a margin Wilson held in absentees--a scenario reminiscent of the 1982 race for governor, in which Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic nominee, won the Election Day vote only to lose to Republican George Deukmejian when the absentee votes were counted.
In San Diego, where he flew after an earlier appearance in Los Angeles, Wilson expressed confidence but warned his backers to prepare for a long night.
"Stay tuned, save some of that lung power for later," he told cheering supporters. "But for now, let me just tell you, it is not too early for me to declare all of you winners."
Feinstein, talking to Los Angeles supporters by telephone from San Francisco, encouraged them to keep their hopes up.
"It isn't over yet," she said, "but frankly speaking, I'm very optimistic."
The ballot-counting was marred by an early foul-up that brought tallying to a halt and drove the candidates and campaign workers to fits of worry.
Melissa Warren, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said the computer system that totals returns in Sacramento stopped at 9:08 p.m., just an hour after the polls closed, and came back 45 minutes later. The problem was traced to an overload in a file, but results came in sluggishly throughout the night.
The secretary of state's office said the percentage of registered voters who turned out was in the low 60s, with absentee ballots accounting for about 20% of the votes.
Both campaigns were setting up for a long night.
"We're going to keep our fingers crossed and see what happens when the absentees come in," said Wilson's campaign director, Otto Bos.
Feinstein's campaign director, Bill Carrick, expressed similar confidence in the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort.
"It was a good, targeted, disciplined effort and I think it'll be reflected in the returns tonight," he said.
The Republican gathering at the Universal City Hilton was disrupted by the huge fire on the nearby Universal Studios lot. Some supporters left the ballroom to look at the glow in the sky. Traffic also was disrupted in the vicinity.
Democrats were dominating the other statewide contests, but there were tight races for attorney general and state treasurer.
Democrat Arlo Smith held a slim advantage over Republican former congressman Dan Lungren in the race for attorney general, a post John K. Van de Kamp relinquished to pursue a losing run for governor this year.
And Democrat Kathleen Brown, sister of one former governor and daughter of another, held a narrow lead over incumbent state Treasurer Thomas W. Hayes, appointed to the post by Deukmejian and seeking his first four-year term.
The first race for state insurance commissioner went to Democrat John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, who resigned his seat in the state Senate in the midst of his general election campaign against Huntington Beach insurance executive Wes Bannister.
Bannister spent only $85,000 on his campaign, including money pumped in by the Republican party, and was openly sheepish about his chances.
"It'll be the biggest fluke in the whole world if I win," he said, adding, "I'm not a household name."
Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy of San Francisco apparently won a third term, holding a comfortable lead over State Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach.
And in a bid for her fifth term, Democratic Secretary of State March Fong Eu appeared to defeat Republican challenger Joan Milke Flores, a Los Angeles City Council member.,
Gray Davis, the Democratic incumbent controller, won his second term over Hacienda Heights attorney Matt Fong, Eu's son, but he expressed concern about the voter mood this year. "I never worked so hard to nail down what everyone thinks is a sure thing," he said, "because I think there is understandable unease and in some cases anger."
And with nearly half the vote counted, the Democratic candidate for District 4 of the Board of Equalization, former state Sen. Paul Carpenter, was winning--despite his recent conviction on federal racketeering and other charges. Even if Carpenter wins, he would not be able to serve and replacement would be appointed by the governor.