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California and the West

Lungren Is Left Pondering What Might Have Been

Politics: Many thought the governor's race was his to lose, but lose he did, and in a landslide. He second-guesses tactics but defends his issues-oriented campaign.

December 28, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

SACRAMENTO — After 20 years in politics--experiencing the highs, the lows, the in-betweens--there is still something monumentally awful about falling on your face in front of 33 million people.

Ask Dan Lungren.

"In other lines of work, you lose or something doesn't work out . . . obviously you're very disappointed. But it's not like it's public"--and here he laughs ruefully--"it's not like everywhere you walk people come up to you."

Almost eight weeks after losing the race for California governor--and losing big--the vanquished Republican nominee apparently is still struggling to come to grips with failure on such an epic scale. In his first postelection interview, the frustration is evident, along with bewilderment and more than a little bitterness, punctuated now and again with a sigh, a humorless chuckle and a series of might-have-beens suspended in midair.

Yet the outgoing state attorney general--for one--doesn't necessarily consider his political career ended. "I don't view it that because you lose once, you're out," he said.

More surprising is his source of inspiration, the living, breathing proof of life's changeable fortunes: "I remember when the members of the California media declared Gray Davis dead meat. I think that was about 10 months ago."

Rested, though hardly at peace, Lungren held forth for more than two hours last week in his soon-to-be-vacated office, dressed down in a Western-style shirt, blue jeans and scuffed cowboy boots.

Dan Lungren may be about the only California Republican who doesn't fault Dan Lungren for losing a race many considered eminently winnable.

It didn't help, he said, that Gov. Pete Wilson--an eye on his legacy and flickering hopes of a 2000 presidential bid--neutralized the tax issue Lungren hoped to run on. Or that much of the California media--particularly TV news--checked out of the race. Or that Gov.-elect Davis emerged from a hard-fought Democratic primary stronger than even Davis could have imagined.

Ultimately, Lungren throws up his hands, figuratively if not literally. "Look," he said, "this was a strange year. It's still a strange year. . . . The president of the United States gets impeached by the House of Representatives and his ratings go up 10 points. . . . Figure that one out."

In many ways, Lungren ran the race of his dreams, an idealized vision of campaigning built around policy statements, a series of candidate debates and an army of grass-roots volunteers from San Diego to Siskiyou County. It would, he vowed, confound the so-called experts and remake the model of politicking in this most media-centric state. Instead, it proved an utter failure.

Still, Lungren's catalog in the do-over department is notably slim.

He figures he should have spent more money to ensure that he, not Davis, got the most votes in June's blanket primary, thus slowing the Democrats' momentum into the fall. He should have relied less on news coverage to get his message out. And he says he should have sought a lone October debate, instead of the series of four that started back in July and seemed redundant by early fall.

"I picked the wrong year," said Lungren, who originally sought to schedule up to 18 debates. "I tried to run an issue-oriented campaign in a non-issue-oriented year."

That suggests a certain helplessness, even a high-minded victimhood, in the face of events beyond his control. But it was Lungren who chose to focus so intensively on the crime issue, a tactic widely criticized for failing to reach beyond Republicans and broaden his appeal.

"When you apply for a job you show your resume," Lungren insisted, and his accomplishments as attorney general--the lowest crime rate in 30 years, modernizing and diversifying his massive department--made Davis' meager record as lieutenant governor pale in comparison.

"I had hoped that people would understand that what I did here was what I wanted to do with all of state government," he said, with more cogency, oddly, than he ever managed on the campaign trail.

Besides, Lungren maintained, Wilson and the Legislature effectively took away the tax issue he hoped to run on by approving a 25% drop in the state's vehicle license fee and other reductions they touted as the largest tax cut in state history.

"How do you make taxes an issue when the beginning shot you started with is presumably taken care of?" Lungren said.

The waylaid tax issue was just one illustration of the difficulty he felt running to succeed his fellow Republican. "You have to attempt to be faithful to that governor, and I think I was, and at the same time attempt to show some differentiation through leadership on certain issues," Lungren said. "I never criticized the governor on this, but he was intimately involved in issues that I was trying to raise."

For his part, Wilson showed no hesitancy publicly criticizing Lungren in the wake of his landslide defeat. The attorney general decided not to respond in kind. "It's not my style," he said, clambering to the high ground.

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