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California Elections: ATTORNEY GENERAL : Rising Stars of Their Parties Trade Charges Over Crime

October 17, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — If this were Windsor, he'd be first in line of succession. Among friend and foe, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren is considered the Republican prince in waiting, the man who by decade's end could rise to become California's governor, or a U.S. senator if he'd prefer.

But first this ascendant hope of GOP conservatives must go about the cumbersome process of getting reelected in November. It could prove testy.

Lungren's opponent is Assemblyman Tom Umberg, a telegenic Democrat from Orange County who is widely regarded as one of his party's promising newcomers on the statewide scene.

A former military prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, Umberg has more courtroom experience as a criminal litigator and could prove a worthy match for Lungren both in charisma and brains. A rarity among Democrats, Umberg is the only member of his party from Orange County holding state or federal elected office. Like Lungren, he is a death penalty supporter and backs the "three-strikes" criminal sentencing law.

With crime one of the hottest issues in the 1994 election, Lungren would seem to have a solid advantage as an incumbent Republican, the party typically perceived by voters to be tougher on law-and-order matters. A recent Times poll showed Lungren, 48, holding a 15-point lead among likely voters. He also has an edge in campaign cash heading into the race's final weeks.

Umberg, however, is hopeful that he can run well in liberal strongholds in Los Angeles and the Bay Area while cutting into Lungren's support in Orange County, which has historically provided an avalanche of Republican votes to push GOP candidates over the top in statewide contests.

The race could tighten in the coming weeks as Umberg, a 39-year-old political moderate little known by voters outside his Assembly district, rolls out a slate of hard-hitting television commercials. In debates and appearances on the campaign trail, the feisty challenger has already begun to pelt Lungren on several fronts.

He contends that the conservative incumbent has tilted at ideological windmills instead of handling important "nuts-and-bolts" issues of the job. More pointedly, Umberg charges that Lungren has "sold his office to the highest bidder" by compromising on cases involving campaign contributors.

So far, such broadsides have not gotten a huge rise from Lungren, who has promised to run on his record. In debates, Lungren has counterattacked by calling Umberg a protege of Willie Brown, the powerful Assembly Speaker from San Francisco, and labeling the challenger a greenhorn who would require "on-the-job training."

On the TV front, the attorney general's campaign is going for a well-packaged look: Lungren's advertisements are being handled by a marketing company more seasoned at peddling products than politicians. The themes are bedrock, philosophical, almost Reaganesque. This race, after all, is not just about four more years in office; it's also Lungren's chance to lay the groundwork for bigger elections to come.

Lungren's political prospects are little wonder given his background. His father was Richard Nixon's physician on the campaign trail during the 1950s, and the former President became something of a mentor, providing occasional advice and encouragement. Lungren displayed an early taste for politics. At age 6, he began leafleting on behalf of a neighbor running for Congress in his hometown of Long Beach.

A devout Catholic and product of parochial schools, Lungren graduated cum laude from Notre Dame in 1968 and later got a law degree. In 1976, he made an unsuccessful run for Congress, but came back two years later to ride the crest of the Proposition 13 tax revolt into office.

In Washington, Lungren earned a reputation as a passionate yet pragmatic conservative and garnered a spot on U.S. News and World Report's short list of politicians under 40 with national promise. His biggest legislative success was in helping win passage of the landmark immigration bill of 1986.

*

The next year, Gov. George Deukmejian picked Lungren as the nominee to fill the treasurer's post left vacant by the death of Jesse Unruh. Democrats, fearing that the job would serve as a springboard for Lungren in the 1990 election, scuttled the nomination.

Lungren turned that defeat into victory. He ran for attorney general in 1990 and eked out a reed-thin win over San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith.

As the state's top cop, Lungren numbers among his top achievements the successful effort, in 1992, to see capital punishment carried out in California for the first time in a quarter of a century. His first term produced record drug seizures, prosecutions of companies for lead content in dinnerware and wine bottle caps, investigations into auto insurance fraud and an $8-million settlement with Sears auto repair shops.

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