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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis, Lungren Will Jump Into TV Ad Race

April 16, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's crunch time for the gubernatorial candidates. The race for party nominations is in the backstretch. Crucial decisions are being made.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the trailing Democrat running on a shoestring, has concluded he cannot wait any longer to start airing TV ads. His spots will begin showing statewide Monday, according to campaign manager Garry South.

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the cinch Republican nominee who has been slow to attract a large party following, also has decided to kick it in gear. He'll soon begin spending his scarce campaign money on TV ads, sources report.

Rep. Jane Harman, the late entry Democrat who darted to the front by spending $4 million of her own fortune on TV--but now could be hurt by Al Checchi's attack ads--is under pressure to hit back at the super-rich airline mogul. Go negative.

"Enough of this high road stuff," complains one prominent Harman supporter, who asks not to be identified. "She has to say this guy's rotten." But Harman hasn't been convinced and neither have all her advisors. Explains one: "She may not need to and it could backfire. The electorate is ready for positive messages."

"I'm chortling," comments one old pro from a rival's campaign.

As for Checchi, he's the rarity. It's not crunch time for him, not yet. No crucial decisions to be sweated--just keep doling out the cash for TV. He's pumped in $20 million-plus already and is spending roughly $1.5 million per week.

The rookie's got a winning stride, attracting significant support from all across the electorate--each party, ideology, race and gender, polls show.

"He's the one candidate uniquely suited to an open primary," contends Darry Sragow, Checchi's campaign manager.

*

California's new open primary--open to all voters, regardless of party--uses one blanket ballot that contains the names of every candidate for each office. A registered Republican, for example, can vote on June 2 for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate--and a significant number do seem to be siding with Checchi.

To recap the latest Democratic rankings, according to a Times poll of likely voters, it's Harman 24%, Checchi 22% and Davis 13%. Lungren, the only major Republican candidate, leads the entire field with 28%.

Another poll of likely voters, reported Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, found closely similar standings. But unlike other surveys, this one showed a slight gender gap among likely voters. The pollster, Mark Baldassare, found women favoring Harman over Checchi, 21% to 19%, and men supporting Checchi over Harman, 18% to 14%.

Without substantial support from women, her strategists concede, Harman is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination.

Also significantly, the Baldassare poll found Lungren being supported by less than half the likely Republican voters--47%--with Checchi pulling 15%.

All this may be about to shift, however, because Lungren and Davis have decided to compete in the TV ad wars.

Lungren knows it could be disastrous--a signal of weakness to campaign donors--to lag behind a Democrat on June 2. So he'll run all-out. The AG's positive ads will be aimed at Republicans, emphasizing his strong conservative beliefs, family values and public service.

"Dan has a compelling personality," says one advisor, "except people don't know him."

Conversely, Davis needs to rally Democrats. This career pol's ads--in a subtle swipe at the megabucks Checchi and Harman--will stress his "experience that money can't buy."

In effect, Davis "will become a new entry in the race," contends strategist South. "Look, unless you're on television, you're not real to people. The average voter has not given two minutes thought to this race yet."

*

Meanwhile, Checchi has been taking hits from pols, pundits and even the White House for his negative ads. Indeed, this political "fresh face," who had pledged to stay positive, increasingly has been looking like an old hack politician, distorting his opponent's record.

One Checchi ad especially riles people--his criticism of Harman's vote for the 1993 federal budget that taxed some Social Security benefits of high-income seniors, but also was the most important bill of President Clinton's first term.

"It was essential for putting America's fiscal house in order," presidential advisor Rahm Emanuel told me Wednesday. "Jane Harman did the country a big favor. A lot of people have tried to take political advantage of Democrats who voted for that budget, but Jane decided we had to call a halt to deficit spending. And if any state has benefited from the stronger economy, it's California."

Checchi may be into a winning stride, but he could yet trip over reckless footwork.

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