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Gavin Weighs GOP Bid for U.S. Senate : Politics: The former actor and ambassador meets with leaders who feel the declared candidates can't win.

August 02, 1991|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — John Gavin, a former actor and outspoken ambassador to Mexico during the Ronald Reagan Administration, is being urged by some prominent California Republicans to enter the party's primary next year as a candidate to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston.

"He's talked to people in the (Bush) Administration and in Congress," Judy Miller, Gavin's aide, said Thursday. "He has not encouraged or invited any of this. He is obviously listening to them."

Gavin, a Los Angeles Republican who considered running for Cranston's seat in 1986, has been courted by some California conservatives who question the electability of the GOP's two declared candidates--Los Angeles television and radio commentator Bruce Herschensohn and Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford).

Gavin discussed a possible Senate race during a meeting with about a dozen Republican congressmen Tuesday in the Washington office of Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne).

"Most pragmatic Republicans are concerned," said one lawmaker who attended the 45-minute session. "They believe that neither (Herschensohn nor Campbell) could beat the Democrat."

Gavin, 60, has received encouragement from party officeholders who believe Herschensohn is too conservative to appeal to a broad cross-section of Californians and that Campbell is too liberal to reflect GOP views in a general election, several Republicans said. They described Gavin as a "mainstream conservative," in the mold of his longtime friend Reagan, and one who could "bridge the gap between the moderates and conservatives."

The effort to enlist Gavin comes two weeks after Dreier announced that he would not enter the race. Gavin, who once headed the Screen Actors Guild and played in films such as "Psycho," "Spartacus" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," will make a decision shortly, Miller said.

Gavin was an activist envoy to Mexico from 1981 to 1986. He won praise in many circles for his handling of such issues as trade and illegal drug dealing as well as for speaking out against anti-American sentiment. But his candor and meetings with critics of the ruling party prompted accusations by Mexicans of meddling in the country's domestic affairs.

Potential supporters tout Gavin's "star quality," foreign policy experience, corporate and entertainment connections and fluency in Spanish. At the same time, he remains an electoral neophyte whose ability to raise the large sums necessary for a California Senate race is untested.

He traveled to Washington this week on business as chairman and chief executive officer of the Century Council, a nonprofit organization funded by distillers, brewers and vintners that seeks to reduce alcohol abuse and drunk driving.

Gavin's entry into the race, should it happen, could be most damaging to Herschensohn, a fellow Los Angeles conservative. Herschensohn said the prospect of Gavin's candidacy reminded him of the 1986 Republican primary race, in which he finished second to former Rep. Ed Zschau, a moderate whose congressional seat Campbell now holds. Zschau lost to Cranston.

"That really hurts," Herschensohn said, when told that some lawmakers questioned his ability to win. "I want to try to prevent any fracturing of the conservative vote."

Campbell said that he took "a welcoming attitude" toward Gavin's possible candidacy. He rejected any suggestion that he is too liberal to be elected.

"Fiscally conservative and pro-choice (on abortion) is precisely where the majority of Californians are," Campbell said, describing his positions.

Campbell said that not all of the congressmen who attended Tuesday's introductory session with Gavin are necessarily promoting his candidacy. Dreier, host of the meeting that included moderates and conservatives, is said to be among Gavin's strongest supporters.

On the Democratic side, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer of Marin County are seeking the Cranston seat--although Brown recently has indicated that he may pursue the party's presidential nomination instead. Rep. Mel Levine of Santa Monica also has indicated interest in running but has not announced his candidacy.

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