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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION : Candidates Stay in Middle of Road on Issues : Maureen DiMarco and Delaine Eastin are both Democrats who share views on key issues, so the campaigns center on leadership, experience and independence. A poll finds 70% of electorate undecided.


Early in the little-noticed fall campaign for the state's top education job, the moderator of a radio debate between the two candidates hit the nail on the head.

"I think it's fair to say the voters don't know either of you very well," Warren Olney, host of KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?" public affairs program, said in kicking off the mid-September segment. "Tell us what difference it would make if you were elected rather than your opponent."

With those two sentences, Olney summed up the challenges facing Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Fremont), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, and Maureen DiMarco, the governor's education adviser and a former school board member in Orange County.

Both are members of the education Establishment in California and emerged as the top vote-getters in the June primary for the nonpartisan post of superintendent of public instruction, albeit by slim margins. Eastin, who spent about $1 million on her primary campaign, received 22.5% of the vote; DiMarco, who spent less than $100,000, got 13.9%.

Polls taken over the summer and as recently as last month showed that neither has sparked much enthusiasm among voters. According to Mervin Field's California Poll, DiMarco and Eastin were dead even at 21% in a July survey of likely voters, with more than half those polled undecided. By mid-September, Eastin may have narrowly led DiMarco (17% to 13%, but pollsters said those figures could be off by 4.5% in either direction) and those in the "undecided" column had risen to 70%.

Campaign consultants on both sides attribute the dismal numbers to their candidates' relatively low visibility to date. Both women focused on fund raising over the summer and have only recently begun engaging in debates and other campaign stump activities. Neither has yet begun television advertising, but both plan to in a state where TV is considered crucial.

Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a university-based think tank, said the campaigns also are hampered by the fact that it is hard for voters to discern clear ideological differences between the candidates.

"This is not a case of liberal versus conservative, not a case where one of the candidates wants to dismantle public education, not even like it was in the primary, where we had more of a range," Kirst said. "The voters chose candidates in the middle, not from the fringes."

It is also hard to say what role either candidate would carve for herself in a state where so many have a hand in making education policy, Kirst added. Although the superintendent runs the 2,200-employee Department of Education and disburses the $29 billion spent on California schools, there are many other players--from the Legislature, the governor and his appointed State Board of Education and the powerful California Teachers Assn. to local school officials.

"So much depends on what the rest of the constellation she is elected with looks like. . . . In California, there is no such thing as an education czar," Kirst said.

The candidates agree on several key issues, including the need to overhaul schools, hold students to higher academic standards and give local voters broader taxing authority. Both also oppose Proposition 187, which would bar illegal immigrant children from the public schools.

Eastin's campaign is pushing the assemblywoman's experience in the Legislature (she was first elected in 1986), her community college teaching stint and her work as a corporate planner for Pacific Telesis as qualifications for helping reshape the 5.2-million-student public education system.

"This is really about who can provide the best leadership," Loretta Lynch, Eastin's campaign manager, said in outlining her candidate's four main themes--school reform, increased parental and business involvement, modernized campuses and higher academic standards and achievement.

Ron Smith, the Republican consultant hired by Democrat DiMarco over the summer, has emphasized a "nonpartisan, nonpolitical" approach, trying to position his candidate as an independent thinker who has proved she can work with people on both sides of the political aisle.

Her campaign also touts DiMarco's long involvement in public schools, first as a volunteer in her two daughters' classrooms, followed by service on a local Orange County school board, as president of the California School Boards Assn. and consultant to then-state Supt. Bill Honig before Republican Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her secretary of child development and education.

"The election will be won by the candidate perceived as the most independent and the one best able to bring about change in the system," Smith said.

Despite the relative lack of activity, the contest has grown increasingly combative.

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