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COLUMN ONE : Targeting the Many Californias : Strategists in the race for governor are keenly aware of political geography, tailoring messages to the state's regions. Reducing a margin of loss in unfriendly territory can be as vital as victory in a stronghold.

October 15, 1994|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Clint Reilly knows what needs to be done for his candidate, Democratic state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, to win the race for governor. He says so right there in black and white, in the 11-page "campaign analysis" he printed up shortly after taking control of Brown's campaign last spring:

Win big in San Francisco.

Improve on Democrat Dianne Feinstein's 1990 gubernatorial victory in Los Angeles County.

Lose San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Ventura counties, which Feinstein also lost, but "reduce the margin of defeat."

On the other side of the furious battle for governor, campaign advisers for incumbent Republican Pete Wilson have made equally blunt calculations.

While it might seem odd to publicly predict defeats, the campaigns' analyses reflect the reality of California politics: Most regions vote so similarly election to election that pretty fair odds on the general outcome can be laid months in advance.

Rather than trying to win every county this November, the campaigns are moving on three fronts: seeking to secure counties that their parties traditionally win; tussling over a few areas that actually change hands, and engaging in a voter-by-voter struggle to lessen the margin of defeat in areas they know they will lose.

"What Clint will attempt to do is raise issues and attack us to whittle down the margins and we will attempt to do the same thing," said Joe Shumate, a Wilson campaign adviser who has studied the state's demography.

Added Wilson's campaign manager, George Gorton: "Everything is in the percentages."

Geography alone does not determine a candidate's destiny. Campaign managers know, for example, that they can strike different chords among men and women, liberals and conservatives, environmentalists and business people, even when they live in the same neighborhoods.

That individual complexity is magnified by the state's sheer size. Unlike, say, New Hampshire, the length of which can be driven in a few hours, California is a massive compilation of more than a dozen media markets, its counties ranging from liberal San Francisco to conservative Orange, all further complicated by the presence of swing voters who change loyalties year to year.

Nonetheless, geographic voting patterns have a certain consistency that allows strategists to determine almost everything about a race--the message a candidate sends, the placement of television advertising (which is all-important in this media-dependent state) and a candidate's campaign events themselves.

It was no accident, for instance, that the first ads touting Brown's vow to enforce the death penalty did not run in San Francisco, the most liberal county in the state. Instead, ads detailing her support for public education--a far less polarizing issue--were substituted.

It is also no accident that 45% of Brown's time since the June primary has been spent in the Los Angeles media market, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. Voters in the market cast 44% of all votes in November, 1992, according to a survey by the Los Angeles Times Poll. Mighty Los Angeles County accounted for 25% of votes cast in 1992, making it a required asset for any winning candidate.

"In 1990, Wilson won (the governorship) by 266,000 votes," said Brown spokesman John Whitehurst. "He won the L.A. media market by more than 300,000 votes. One could argue that in the determination of this election, the Los Angeles media market will be very significant."

Brown's gubernatorial team is engaged in an unprecedented effort to run regionalized campaigns, emphasizing quite different issues, in several key areas of the state.

"We're actually trying to run five to six campaigns at one time," said Reilly.

It is with good reason that Democrats are attempting to come up with a new way to run statewide campaigns. Except for 1992, the party's successes in recent years have been meager. From 1980 until 1992, the only Democrat to win a top-of-the-ticket statewide race was U.S. Senate veteran Alan Cranston, who retired in 1992.

Despite consistent Democrat leads in statewide voter registration, only two counties have voted Democratic in all of the three most recent governor's races: San Francisco and Alameda.

Even ignoring one of the three, the disastrous 1986 race in which George Deukmejian won every county but those two in defeating Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the predictable Democratic turf is narrow indeed.

Besides San Francisco and Alameda, only six of the state's 58 counties have consistently voted Democratic at the top of a statewide ticket for governor or senator: the Northern California suburban counties of Marin, Mendocino, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Yolo. Sonoma has voted Democratic since 1988.

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