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Miscues Have Some Insiders Doubting Brown's Chances : Politics: As campaign enters crucial stretch, she needs a 'blockbuster' to recover momentum, some analysts say.

October 02, 1994|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The Kathleen Brown campaign, once considered an unstoppable juggernaut headed straight for the governor's office in Sacramento, now is struggling for its political life in the view of many California political experts--most of them Brown's fellow Democrats.

Even though recent polls show the race still close, several developments in the last month have contributed to deepening alarm inside and outside the Brown campaign and led many Democratic insiders to conclude that hopes for winning the governorship are slipping away.

Among the most pessimistic of them, the fear is not whether Brown will lose, but by how much. A significant Brown loss, by 5% or more, could create a "downdraft" effect that would defeat Democrats running for other statewide offices, they believe.

Some of the reasons for concern have been beyond Brown's control. Opinion polls nationally, and to a lesser extent in California, suggest a powerful Republican undertow that could bring down many incumbent Democrats, and make life that much tougher for Democratic challengers.

But in the past few weeks, a series of stumbles and miscues by Brown's campaign has triggered widespread second-guessing of whether she squandered her chance this summer to overtake incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson, for whom voters still seem to have little affection.

Publicly, Brown and her campaign spokesman declare that they are right where they want to be. "We're very confident of winning," said Steven M. Glazer, a senior adviser to Brown, the state treasurer.

Other Democratic political consultants and strategists described the Brown campaign in interviews with The Times in terms that ranged from "not working" to "an abomination."

The corps of Brown campaign critics even have included Brown's husband, television news consultant Van Gordon Sauter. And one Brown insider said Thursday that changes were being planned to present Brown in a more personal and aggressive fashion, putting her in closer contact with average voters.

With about five weeks to go before the Nov. 8 general election, Brown needs to score some sort of dramatic breakthrough--a "blockbuster," as one insider put it--if she hopes to defeat Wilson, many Democratic political consultants and independent analysts said.

The views of the Democratic experts were not unanimously gloomy. Some argued that Brown could turn her campaign around, noting that a month can be a lifetime in California politics. "I think she can still win," said political consultant Darry Sragow, who ran Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's unsuccessful primary campaign against Brown this year.

Another respected strategist said: "I don't think she's doing nearly as bad as the conventional wisdom says."

But many of the experts interviewed by The Times cited the inexperience and proneness to error of a candidate and campaign team running at this level for the first time. By contrast, Wilson has a highly seasoned group that has been with him for years, winning two races for the U.S. Senate as well as the governorship. His campaign not only guards itself zealously against miscues, but is quick to pounce on opposition errors.

Wilson on Friday completed an effective September "Rose Garden" strategy, using his incumbency to promote some of his key issues--particularly crime--and he will be on the road almost constantly the rest of the campaign.

"Pete Wilson will be all over the place," said Wilson spokesman Dan Schnur. "She's been spoiling for Pete Wilson to come out and campaign. She's about to find out: It's not going to be a particularly pleasant experience for her."

Republican strategists are so confident that Wilson will win that they believe he can afford to spend some time and resources on behalf of down-ticket Republicans.

Brown's core problem--according to political experts--is that she still has failed to define herself and her goals clearly or forcefully enough to move voters to her column. The major public opinion polls indicate that Wilson, even though he is not a popular governor, maintains greater credibility on the issues of most concern to the people this fall--violent crime, illegal immigration and the economy.

Ironically, the criticism of the Brown campaign has gathered intensity just as the candidate finally has polished her campaign speeches, in both content and delivery, and has seemed far more at ease on the stump than she was last spring. So far, however, this image of Brown has not been transmitted to the Californians who will vote based on television news coverage and campaign commercials--that is, most voters.

Often the first critical sign of a faltering campaign is lack of funds. One observer said this past week that the campaign was beginning to "hit the wall" on contributions. But Glazer insisted that the campaign had enough money to carry it to Election Day.

One Democrat, who is associated with another statewide race and who has watched the Brown campaign closely from the beginning, said it is "reaching the phase where panic sets in."

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