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CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Shake-Up in the Race for Governor

January 27, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — In reality, all three candidates have been running for a year. But if you were forced to designate an official kickoff for the 1994 California gubernatorial campaign, it would be this week. And you'd have to say that the Democratic nomination is Treasurer Kathleen Brown's to lose.

Until the earthquake, you'd have said the same about the general election in November. But nature suddenly has given Gov. Pete Wilson an opportunity to win reelection by shining as an administrator and a leader in the rebuilding. He'll need to make that his top priority. And he'll also need President Clinton's help.

Why would the Democratic President help a Republican governor? Because their job ratings on the quake will be linked. Voters will bestow their appreciation or anger on the executives in charge of governmental efforts and likely won't distinguish much between the feds and the state. Clinton will need California politically in 1996.

Brown, of course, could lose the nomination in June. And even if she won it, she could lose the general election regardless of whether Wilson shines in the quake zone.

If she comes across as too soft--on the tough issues or in demeanor--that could play into lingering stereotypes about women and worry some voters. She could say some dumb things, such as when she told reporters last month that her personal views on capital punishment were "irrelevant" because she intends to enforce the death penalty.

Both her Democratic primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and the incumbent governor are tenacious, energetic, experienced street fighters with more detailed knowledge of the issues than Brown. The race has yet to be run.

But the point is, the candidates have been running and the insiders--politicians and partisans--today see it pretty much as they did several months ago, especially in the Democratic primary.

It looks like this: Garamendi is a tough campaigner and should not be underestimated, but Brown has the money and the women. And that is a powerful combination in a Democratic primary, where 53% to 56% of the voters are women.

Brown also has something else: star quality, which no amount of campaign money can buy.

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Brown next week will report a campaign bank balance of $5 million-plus. By contrast, Garamendi and Wilson will report roughly $1 million each. Neither Wilson nor Brown will have difficulty raising many millions more, but Garamendi's campaign probably will continue to hurt financially.

Polling shows the gender advantage for Brown: The most recent Field poll found Brown leading Garamendi by 15 points. Among women, she led by a whopping 21 points; among men, by nine. Against Wilson, she led overall by eight points. But she had a 12-point lead among women and only four among men.

Wilson had cut substantially into Brown's lead since an October Field poll, when she led by 17 points. It seems many Republican women moved back to Wilson, putting party above gender.

Garamendi led Wilson by 11 points, indicating he might be a stronger Democratic nominee than Brown--if only he could get past the primary.

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The two big raps on Brown by her adversaries are that she is not specific and she's not experienced, either in government or politics. Their thinking is that she may buckle in a tough race.

So far, Brown does not seem to have voters loudly clamoring for her election, as some had thought she might. But neither does she show signs of being a buckler. She's clearly a fighter and bent on following her father and brother into the governor's office.

Brown is about to substantially strengthen her campaign team by, among other things, bringing in a new chief strategist: Bill Carrick, who was Sen. Dianne Feinstein's top adviser when Feinstein narrowly lost to Wilson in the 1990 gubernatorial race. Carrick reportedly is eager for another crack at Wilson.

Brown has blunted the specificity charge with speeches outlining proposals on immigration, education, crime and--on Wednesday--the economy. At the same time Wednesday, Garamendi was outlining an earthquake recovery plan. Both speeches had one thing in common: strong attacks on Wilson's leadership. Garamendi's also contained something Brown's didn't: A bold call for tax increases to finance earthquake recovery.

The three candidates were on the same platform for the first time last weekend at a conference of the California Teachers Assn. and all performed well. But don't look for many more such triads. Wilson hopes to stand aside while Brown and Garamendi pummel each other. And Brown will try to ignore Garamendi.

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