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California Elections : GOVERNOR : Wilson, Brown Face Off Tonight in TV Debate


Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrat Kathleen Brown meet for one hour on statewide television tonight in an appearance that could be pivotal to Brown's prospects for unseating Wilson from California's governorship Nov. 8.

The debate, in which the candidates will field questions from a panel of three political reporters, will originate in Sacramento and be aired live statewide over public television stations from 6:30 until 7:30 p.m. The network includes station KCET, Channel 28, in Los Angeles. KCBS-TV, Channel 2, in Los Angeles, also will carry the encounter live.

The questions are expected to focus on a handful of issues the candidates have discussed at a distance throughout the campaign: crime, the death penalty, illegal immigration, education, Wilson's fiscal management, and jobs and the economy.

Political experts said Brown needs a breakthrough of some sort--or a major mistake by Wilson--to boost her campaign. A Los Angeles Times poll released this week found Wilson leading Brown 54% to 41% among those likely to vote.

This is likely to be the only face-to-face encounter during the five months of the general election campaign.

While the importance of debates as turning points is often overstated, UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain said the meeting "represents an important moment when people get to actually discuss whether there really are important differences. And we can really see how the two of them stand up against each other."

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the impact could be particularly influential on undecided voters "because for the first time they get to measure the candidates next to one another."

"Having said that," Sabato added, "most of the research in the field suggests that debates move very few voters. They tend to reconfirm people in their leanings, candidates or party."

In any event, only 4% of those likely to vote describe themselves as undecided. And those who had picked a candidate to support indicated overwhelmingly that it was not likely that they would change their minds between now and Election Day.

Cain, affiliated with the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley, said the ideal situation for Brown was for her to "be brilliant" and for Wilson to flub.

Brown handled herself well during her primary election debates, most experts agreed. But universally, they also described Wilson as a seasoned--if not spectacular--debater who is not prone to making mistakes.

Cain said Brown might rekindle her campaign if she can show "some substance, some bite, some spunk."

So far, Wilson primarily has hammered Brown via 30-second spots on television, he added. But tonight, he will have several minutes to respond to questions and then respond to Brown's rebuttal.

"It may refocus things back onto Pete Wilson as governor, as opposed to the weaknesses of Kathleen Brown," Cain said. "On the other hand, Kathleen Brown has to show that she has something to say that is an alternative to Pete Wilson as governor."

Both candidates spent time preparing for the debate this week, and spokesmen for each campaign started debate spin Thursday.

Wilson aide Dan Schnur said, "This is a tremendous opportunity for Pete Wilson to very clearly delineate the differences between himself and Kathleen Brown on issues that matter to the people of California."

Brown spokesman Steve Glazer said, "Our goal is to contrast Kathleen Brown's written economic plan to rebuild California with Wilson's failed record of deteriorating schools, the fiscal mess in the Statehouse and economic stagnation."

However, debate rules presumably would prevent Brown from bringing her 62-page economic plan booklet--which her campaign is distributing throughout the state--into the debate studio at public television station KVIE just north of Sacramento.

Reporters on the panel will be Ken Chavez of the Sacramento Bee, James Boren of the Fresno Bee and Mark Coogan of television station KABC in Los Angeles. The moderator will be Margaret Larson, a Seattle broadcast personality formerly of KVIE and KCRA in Sacramento and the NBC television network.

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