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California Elections : LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR : Davis, Wright Battle for the Spotlight


Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Gray Davis is pouring more than $2 million into a drive to defeat state Sen. Cathie Wright, his little-known and underfinanced Republican opponent.

But the liberal-leaning Davis, the state controller, is not merely trying to bury the conservative Simi Valley lawmaker in their Nov. 8 matchup for the state's No. 2 office. Davis' parallel goal is to rehabilitate his own image, tarnished by his unsuccessful 1992 campaign for the U.S. Senate against Dianne Feinstein.

In that losing effort, a negative Davis TV ad sparked a furor by comparing Feinstein to convicted hotelier Leona Helmsley. Feinstein's backers described the 30-second spot as "sleazy" and offensive to women and Jews.

The two-term controller has sought to reduce any lingering anger over the spot among Democrats by strongly endorsing Feinstein's Senate reelection bid, raising funds for other statewide Democratic candidates and staying in close touch with his gubernatorial running mate, Kathleen Brown.

Still, underdog Wright is now focusing on the Feinstein ad to show that Davis has never "learned how to effectively campaign against women because I don't believe he has ever respected women."

In an interview on the campaign trail, Davis shrugged off the criticism and blasted Wright, with whom he served in the Assembly, as "a far-right extremist" who opposes abortion rights and other issues important to women. Davis favors abortion rights.

Not withstanding the heated rhetoric, the campaign to succeed retiring Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy has been a low-key affair that has generated little attention.

But as the election nears, that could change. Davis has prepaid about $1 million for campaign spots and expects to shell out another $1 million this week for more air time. While Davis has raised $1.7 million this year, Wright has brought in only $450,000, though she hopes to raise considerably more to launch a competitive TV attack on the better-known Davis.

A Los Angeles Times poll this week showed Davis with a commanding 2-to-1 lead over Wright among likely voters, making the controller the closest thing the Democrats have to a sure winner among statewide races.

Should Davis succeed and Brown fail in her race against Gov. Pete Wilson, the controller will be catapulted into the ranks of the top contenders for the 1998 campaign for the state's top job, according to Democratic insiders.

But the last time a lieutenant governor moved into the governor's office was in 1953 when Goodwin Knight succeeded Earl Warren. Indeed, one joke around the Capitol is that the lieutenant governor's most important job is to check to see if the chief executive's heart is still ticking.

On paper, the duties of the post are limited to filling in for the governor, serving as the largely ceremonial presiding officer of the state Senate and sitting on about half a dozen boards, including the University of California Board of Regents and the Economic Development Commission.

Both Wright and Davis boast that they will transform the chairmanship of the latter commission into a bully pulpit to revitalize the state's economy. But, as noted by McCarthy's office, there's a big catch: The Legislature has cut the panel's funds effective January.

Still, where others see a road to oblivion, Davis sees a golden opportunity to become "Al Gore West," comparing himself to the activist Democratic vice president.

Speaking to a friendly Democratic women's club last month at a Fresno bowling alley, Davis talked about his willingness to roll up his sleeves to court business, citing his successful role in keeping Taco Bell from relocating its headquarters from Irvine to Texas and moving 1,000 jobs out of California.

"I'm going to make it my life's work to be an advocate for jobs in California," Davis told his supporters.

Two decades after he first ran for statewide office, Davis, 51, is now a battle-scarred campaigner who is beginning to ease into the part of party elder statesman. His neatly coiffed brown hair is turning white, and though he was once known for his hot temper, an outwardly mellower Davis even mocks himself as "a boring white guy."

Born Joseph Graham Davis III, Davis moved to California at age 11. After graduating from Stanford University where he was a varsity golfer, Davis got a law degree from Columbia University. He served two years with the Army in Vietnam, leaving with the rank of captain and a Bronze Star. He is married to a flight attendant.

Davis later worked for then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, lost a treasurer's race to Jesse M. Unruh and served for six years as former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s highly visible chief of staff. Elected to the Assembly in 1982 from a silk-stocking West Los Angeles district that provided a good base for his aggressive fund-raising, Davis was well positioned four years later to step up to controller.

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