If California politics doubled as an amusement park, voters would fast be entering Fantasyland, a place where perception means everything and reality very little. And it's all because television, the biggest player in California campaigns, is now exercising its might.
With two months to go before California's primary elections, the two richest candidates for governor are battling on the airwaves, and another expects to begin advertising soon. By sometime this week, an astonishing $20 million will have been spent on television ads in that one race.
Television always asserts its preeminence before the primary, because it is the only way of reaching California's far-flung and disparate electorate. But especially notable this year is the sheer volume of ads and the strange alliances forged by free-flowing money.
Al Checchi, the Democratic businessman making his first bid for public office, has begun lobbing ads critical of Rep. Jane Harman, despite his public promises to stay on the high road. Harman, trying to keep that ground for herself, is loftily responding that she will focus on issues--despite taking the fewest stands of any gubernatorial candidate this year.
Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, whose campaign has spent months chewing out Checchi, is now cheering Checchi's anti-Harman ads. Davis has been off the air because of money constraints--posing the boggling possibility that by the time he begins appearing in ads, the veteran of 24 years in California politics will amount to a fresh face.
Then there is the U.S. Senate campaign, in which one candidate, car alarm mogul Darrell Issa, has spent about $4 million on television and radio and is promising to spend more as the election nears.
Although the tone of the ads has been relatively bland so far, all of the largess has political professionals worried that there may not be enough prime commercial air time for all the candidates--or, worse, that voters will simply click off.
"You have this kind of money flying around for this long, and we're concerned that it will, in effect, suck up the good air time," said Ray McNally, a Republican consultant who is running several legislative races competing for attention with the top-of-the-ticket contests.
"Voters are going to be numb to political commercials at the same time most candidates start advertising," he said.
The massive quantities of television ads stem from two intertwined realities: None of the candidates for governor is well known, and two have substantial bank accounts with which they are trying to change that.
Checchi, a major stockholder in Northwest Airlines, began airing commercials in November, a good two months earlier than candidates in previous years. Harman, whose husband, Sidney, made a fortune in the electronics business, began airing her spots in February, even before she formally announced her candidacy. Both had the same goal--to introduce themselves to voters for whom both were essentially unknown.
Each has tried to craft clear television images: Checchi has been selling himself as the true outsider in the race, a non-politician who wants to use business practices to free up wasted government money to invest in education and other problem areas. Harman has tried to split the difference between Checchi and Davis, arguing that she has both public and private experience and thus is more solid than Checchi and more inventive than Davis.
(Davis, of course, has contended that he is the best-prepared candidate, with decades of government experience. He underscores that theme in radio ads currently airing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego.)
Two weeks ago, however, the focus was different. On the heels of a Field poll that showed Checchi and Harman essentially tied for the lead among Democrats, Checchi began airing commercials criticizing Harman's congressional votes.
"In Congress, Jane Harman voted with Newt Gingrich to raise Medicare premiums and to cut home health-care services," Checchi's ad states, invoking Gingrich's name as a weapon. The reference is to a vote that increased premiums for elderly people making more than $70,000 a year.
She responded by replacing her introductory ads with one in which she says Checchi is "distorting my record."
"Mr. Checchi can waste his money attacking me," she adds. "I'll spend my time on real problems--schools, crime, the economy--and protecting seniors who have worked hard for their families, like my 87-year-old father."
To some extent, both Checchi and Harman have been successful in getting their messages across, political analysts say. But that success is limited by the overwhelming sense that voters don't yet truly know any of the candidates. Support for all the candidates is considered soft and changeable.
According to San Jose State political science professor Larry N. Gerston, Checchi's shift to Harman-bashing before his own image was cast in stone "blurs" his message. "That could confuse people," Gerston said.