On the traditional opening day of the fall campaign, California's candidates for governor took off the gloves Monday and accused each other of not being up to the job. With that, they ushered in what will be the most-watched gubernatorial contest in the nation this year, one with a potentially profound impact not only on the running of the nation's largest state but on the looming 1996 presidential contest.
At a Labor Day pancake breakfast on the grounds of Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown tore into Republican incumbent Pete Wilson on the joint themes of economics and education.
"This is a state that was built on the workers, the workers who came here from all over the country and the world to find a decent job, good schools and safe communities," she said. "In four years under Pete Wilson, we have seen the promise that once was California destroyed--job by job, school by school and community by community. And we're not going to give him a job for four more years, are we?
"Pete Wilson wants to keep his job. Let's ask him what he's done to help you keep yours."
Across town in Marina del Rey, where he spent an hour shaking hands and lunching with lifeguards and fire rescue crews, Wilson characterized Brown as a woman content to sit on the sidelines--"a non-player"--while he did the dirty work of governing the state.
Wilson said his remarkable political resurgence--he has come from 20-plus points down in the polls a year ago to a narrow lead now--is due to voters directly comparing him and Brown.
"Frankly, they are contrasting the record of performance with a lot of conversation from Ms. Brown, and they don't see any real participation (from her) in making the kind of change that they think important," he said.
"She has not been involved in either changing the jobs climate, in making any of the reforms that we have targeted to small business employers to keep them in the state. She hasn't been involved at all in any of the reforms of the criminal justice system. The words welfare reform I don't think passed her lips until she was a candidate for governor, indeed most of the things she's talking about now didn't."
As the cross-sniping indicated, the election is expected to be hard-fought, even bitter, before it ends on Election Day, Nov. 8. And the emotions cross state borders, for throughout the nation, the California race is being watched by political seers seeking to divine the futures of both parties.
Democrats have lusted after the governor's office since they lost it in 1982, and it is seen as particularly important this year as the buildup continues to the 1996 presidential election.
Republicans are yearning to hold on to the seat to arrest the staggering momentum of Democrats here, who in the last statewide election in 1992 won two U.S. Senate seats and destroyed Republican hopes of dominance in the Legislature and Congress.
For the two nominees, however, the race is personal. Brown is seeking to be the third member of her family to occupy the governor's suite, after her father Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. and her brother Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. Wilson is fighting to defy those who counted him out last year when his popularity fell to record lows.
For most of the summer, the election has been fought on Wilson's turf--crime. Brown sought Monday to broaden her attack with her contention that Wilson has been the worst governor for education in the state's history and has presided over the destruction of one job for every 34 minutes of his tenure.
"We can restore the dream, we can restore the promise," she said.
Wilson, while belittling Brown on a range of issues, signaled that crime will be at the forefront of his autumn attack. He took particular delight Monday in lancing her for saying recently that crime would be a "so-what" issue to voters in the fall.
"Anyone who can say it's a so-what issue in October has never understood it in the first place, has never had the visceral understanding of why people are outraged," he said. "If she thinks that, she's deluding herself and no one else."
The candidates also quarreled long-distance over debates. Brown complained that Wilson has refused to agree to debate her.
"I want him to debate me like a man," she said. "He's out there hiding behind his wife, (and) the Republican female governor of New Jersey. Let's get a debate. Let's get five debates."
Wilson's wife, Gayle, has been actively campaigning for him, and last week New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman visited on his behalf. Wilson has declined any debates in September, citing the press of business in Sacramento, where he has 1,500 legislative bills on his desk for a signature or a veto.
In Marina del Rey, the governor dismissed Brown's debate lament. "That's gamesmanship of the kind that she would do well to abandon," he said. "She knows that we initiated the whole debate question. We asked her to debate."