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Umberg Primary Foe Quits Attorney General's Race : Politics: Garden Grove assemblyman is elated by Arlo Smith's move. He'll face incumbent Dan Lungren.

March 12, 1994|ERIC BAILEY and JERRY GILLAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a surprise move, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith announced Friday that he is dropping out of the race for attorney general, setting up a showdown between Democratic Assemblyman Tom Umberg of Orange County and Republican incumbent Dan Lungren.

Smith, who narrowly lost to Lungren in 1990 and had been campaigning aggressively in recent weeks, said he was concerned neither he or Umberg (D-Garden Grove) could unseat Lungren after an expensive primary battle.

"The negatives and the high cost incurred in a primary skirmish would only aid a sitting attorney general," Smith said in a press release, adding that "Dan Lungren must be replaced."

Umberg, now the lone candidate in the Democratic primary for attorney general, said he was shocked by Smith's announcement.

"We won the primary!" said the gleeful assemblyman, who had raised eight times more campaign money than Smith. "I think he saw the writing on the wall. We were gaining momentum, we were getting endorsements. . . . We needed the primary to demonstrate strength, and we demonstrated strength by forcing Arlo out."

Umberg, a former federal prosecutor and the only Orange County Democrat holding state or federal office, said Smith called Friday afternoon to give him the news.

"He was very gracious about it," said Umberg, a two-term assemblyman. "He said that he thought we should be devoting our mutual efforts toward electing a different attorney general, that a primary might be divisive. He thought for the greater good, he would get out of the race."

Lungren's campaign manager, Joanne Stabler, was also taken aback by the news.

"Arlo's such a fighter," she said. "It did surprise me."

A few Sacramento insiders suggested that Smith might have been persuaded to pull out by Democratic kingpins. On Thursday, Smith paid a visit to the state Capitol, holding discussions with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and other Democratic leaders.

Smith could not be reached for comment on the talks. Dennis Collins, Smith's campaign manager, said he was not privy to the meetings with Brown and the others, but played down any effect they might have had.

"What impact that had on his decision I don't know," Collins said. "There were no threats or coercion. I think there might have been a very pragmatic discussion of the way things stood and decisions were made accordingly. It was a real hard decision on Arlo's part."

Umberg's camp said they did not ask for Brown or anyone else to intervene on their behalf.

"We made no effort to get Arlo out," said George Urch, Umberg's campaign manager. "As a matter of fact, we were looking forward to running against Arlo. A rigorous primary has its benefits."

In particular, he said, a primary battle could have helped boost Umberg's name identification around the state. Outside Orange County, Umberg is little known.

With Smith now out of the race, Umberg will be able to marshal his forces and save a bundle of campaign cash--he had estimated the primary alone would cost him $1.2 million. Last month, Umberg reported about $300,000 cash on hand compared to $36,000 for Smith.

Aside from holding a substantial fund-raising edge, Umberg had the backing of more than two dozen colleagues in the Legislature, a powerful campaign weapon because those lawmakers can provide strategic help and a ready soapbox to promote a statewide candidate in their districts.

In addition, Urch said, Umberg should gain a hefty measure of respect for "slaying Arlo Smith before he's even started." Urch also suggested that Smith's departure will allow Umberg to begin assailing Lungren's record all the sooner.

"Now it's Dan Lungren who is the target," Urch said. "We're now on an equal footing with the Republican attorney general."

Stabler said Lungren didn't care who he faced. The attorney general, she said, will run on the strength of his record.

"It doesn't change our campaign strategy all that much," she said. "We're just going to go forward and focus as we have been on the November general election. Frankly, I'm excited about this. Now we have a defined opponent."

In other statewide races, Democratic state Sen. David A. Roberti of Van Nuys formally unveiled his candidacy for state treasurer Friday. Roberti had also been eyeing a seat on the lower-profile State Board of Equalization, but said he opted for the treasurer's race because he felt that office could be transformed into a crime-fighting unit.

First, however, Roberti must face a recall campaign in his San Fernando Valley Senate district being led by gun-rights activists angered by the senator's support of a 1989 assault weapon ban. The longtime legislator portrayed himself Friday as a feisty underdog who refuses to give his recall opponents the satisfaction of seeing him pass up a run for statewide office.

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