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COLUMN ONE : Analysis of a Doomed Campaign : Kathleen Brown changed issues too often and ran out of money. But even if she had made no mistakes, she faced a political master holding two aces--crime and illegal immigration.

November 14, 1994|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It wasn't supposed to be like this, Democrats said to each other in the final days of the campaign, as the grim reality of Kathleen Brown's fate became apparent.

She was the crown princess of California politics, the telegenic daughter of one governor and sister of another, a bright shining star on whom the Democrats had been pinning their future hopes for years.

Yet when she lost her bid for the governorship to Republican Pete Wilson, she lost big, her defeat taking on the dimensions of a political train wreck. She lost the state by 15 points, lost even Democratic-leaning Los Angeles County. She carried fewer votes than several lower-ranking members of the Democratic ticket. She won five counties, half the number Democrats count on even when they lose.

Looking back, Democrats and Republicans now say, there were signs of the impending blowout all along.

No one moment turned the course, no one event crystallized Wilson's advantage over Brown. Rather, she had--to borrow one of the political world's favorite phrases this year--three strikes against her: message, money and the voting environment.

Poll after poll showed Wilson controlling the issues Californians deemed important. Poll after poll showed that Brown's support came from people who just liked her or her family, not from those committed to her because of a deeper political issue. She was ideologically estranged from the bulk of California, both in her stance on the death penalty and on the initiative to which she hitched her final hopes--the polarizing Proposition 187.

She was outspent over the course of the campaign by several million dollars, and she ran in a year in which having a "D" after one's name on the ballot was very nearly a death knell.

Undeniably, her campaign made strategic errors as well, ones that haunted her effort and those of other Democrats on the ticket. She and her campaign made critical miscalculations about the issues that would motivate voters in this most angry political year.

"To some degree Kathleen came into this with more of a reputation for being a political pro than she deserved," said one prominent Democrat. "She had one run once before for a down-ballot office (state treasurer) against an appointee. In a state this big and complicated, that is not much experience."

But Democrats and Republicans suggest now that even had Brown run a strategically brilliant campaign, her chances would have been iffy, at best.

"Unless Kathleen Brown had sat down at least two years ago and rethought her basic philosophical underpinnings, she was going to have a very, very difficult race regardless of what she did," said Dan Schnur, Wilson's press spokesman, who echoed the views of many Democrats. "Ultimately, this was an election that came down to very stark philosophical differences."

Brown does not agree, and lays the primary blame for her defeat on the Republican tide that engulfed the nation Tuesday. With her genetically optimistic style, she remains proud of what she did.

"I was broke so many times in this campaign," she said in an interview after the election. "We started every Monday with $68 in the bank. It was unbelievable what was achieved. Unbelievable that we kept coming back."

*

The rule is a hard-and-fast one in the cyclical and frequently mystifying world of electoral politics: Never re-fight the last election. This time around, doing so was particularly lethal.

But that was what it appeared Brown was doing for much of the campaign. Like the party's 1992 presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, Brown focused a great deal of fire on the economy. Like Clinton, she had in her sights an unpopular Republican. Like Clinton, she bound up a "plan" in a shiny cover, rolled it up and used it to browbeat the incumbent.

Democrats could have been forgiven, in those glowing early days after their sweeping 1992 victory, for having illusions that the same sort of appeal would prevail two years hence. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The signs were simple at first: Pollsters started picking up hints that voters once again considered Republicans better suited than Democrats to deal with their problems. The public rebelled at Clinton's health care plan, deriding it as a big-government solution in a time when people wanted government small.

Fear raised its head, as it frequently does when times are tough. Crime zoomed to the top of the list of issues important to Californians, followed quickly by its partner in emotion: illegal immigration.

Wilson laid the groundwork for his campaign more than a year before the election, when he started stoking the fires about illegal immigration and crime. The power of incumbency came into play: It is impossible to ignore illegal immigration as an issue when a governor uses it to declare war on the President of the United States.

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