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GOP CONVENTION '96

Lungren's Lucky Star Shines Brightly at GOP Convention

Politics: Gov. Wilson's tiff with party leaders over the abortion issue has helped propel California's attorney general to role of ambassador for unity.

August 13, 1996|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The economic plan designed to propel Bob Dole into the White House was officially introduced at the Republican National Convention on Monday in a speech delivered by California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

That was the good news for Lungren. The bad news was that he had only three minutes. So it goes at this "fast-paced" version of the GOP convention.

"What happens if I exceed it?" Lungren said he asked convention planners. "They said: 'Well, we cut your mike off.' And I said: 'Well, I've got a pretty good voice. I can probably reach a good portion of the audience without a mike.' "

Lungren's mike was never turned off, even though he talked a bit more than four minutes. The economic plan, it turned out, had to wait until the end of an enthusiastic ovation from the California delegation. "It's nice to come from a big family," Lungren began.

In Republican circles these days, Lungren still is a rising star after a career that started almost two decades ago as a Long Beach congressman. Two years before the next election, Lungren--liked by both moderates and conservatives--already is a consensus favorite to win the GOP nomination for governor.

Now, at the national convention, he has been cast as the yin to Gov. Pete Wilson's yang. While the governor has angered party leaders by leading an internal fight over abortion, Lungren appears--at least within the California GOP--to be the ambassador for unity that the party is seeking.

Perhaps the difference between Lungren and Wilson lies in their career tracks. While Lungren is preparing to run for governor, Wilson, a lame duck because of term limits, could be approaching the end of his political career.

The contrast was dramatically illustrated on the convention floor Monday. Shortly after Lungren introduced the GOP's economic plan, Wilson appeared nearby on the convention floor to tell a bank of television cameras that the party needs to show more respect for abortion-rights supporters.

"I think Lungren is a moderate conservative," state Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Cucamonga) explained, purposely using two conflicting labels. "He will come out of this convention with a huge bump. He is loved by the delegates from all over California."

Lungren said nothing when he was asked about Wilson's actions this week. He was a member of the platform committee that voted last week in favor of the antiabortion plank that Wilson considered a detriment to the GOP.

"I don't advise others what they ought to do," Lungren said Monday. "As a delegate for Bob Dole, I was pursuing what I thought to be the Dole campaign overall plan. And I thought we did very, very good work."

Lungren stayed neutral in the GOP primary contest last year, even as Wilson waged his own ill-fated presidential campaign. When Wilson dropped out, he quickly endorsed Dole. As the highest-ranking Dole supporter in California, Lungren was picked to head the state's Dole effort.

But when the governor endorsed Dole a few weeks later, Lungren was asked to share the leadership duties. Within a few weeks, however, insiders complained that Wilson's aides had unceremoniously jettisoned a few Lungren backers.

The entire episode led to a widespread feeling among California political observers that the relationship between the two Republican officials is cool.

But Lungren disputed the characterization Monday, saying that he and his wife were dinner guests at the governor's home about two weeks ago where they joked about press attention to the matter. "I've always gotten along fine with Pete Wilson," he said.

Now, as presidential politics is about to move into the general election campaign, Lungren said that the strategic role he and the governor have provided will largely be turned over to professionals like Ken Khachigian, the Dole consultant in California.

But privately, Dole officials also said that Wilson's threats this week have gained him some high-ranking enemies--and benefited Lungren.

Lungren has not always been so popular among Republicans.

In 1988, he was appointed state treasurer by Gov. George Deukmejian, but was rejected by a Democratic Senate that found him too conservative. When he ran for attorney general in 1990, he barely eked out a victory over San Francisco Democrat Arlo Smith. The outcome was not known for days.

Finally, Lungren triggered an uproar among conservative supporters when he lobbied for two gun-control bills--one to ban assault weapons in California and one to require a waiting period before allowing the purchase of handguns.

Lungren has sided with conservatives recently in opposition to affirmative action and for a crackdown on illegal immigration. On the platform committee, he voted for a plank that seeks a constitutional amendment prohibiting automatic U.S. citizenship for babies born in America to illegal immigrant parents.

Now, with his speech at the convention, Lungren steps back to a role he played in Congress: that of a Reaganesque supply-sider working closely with then-fellow House member Jack Kemp.

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