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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Attack Ads, Not Clinton, End Up Swaying Feinstein

January 22, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband had just finished watching the movie "Air Force One" and were staring at the credits when the phone rang. It was a call literally from out of the blue. It was from Air Force One.

"Dick and I will never get over this one," Feinstein says, referring to her husband, investment banker Richard Blum.

President Clinton was calling Feinstein to urge her to run for governor. Instead, the call had the opposite effect. If she couldn't say yes without hesitation to the president of the United States--the leader of her party, the most powerful man on Earth--then deep down she really didn't want to run. "When I realized my reluctance was as deep as it is," she says, "that was a big realization to me, to be very honest."

Clinton asked her for more time, other sources say. He'd call around. He'd get back to her. If need be, the president said facetiously, he'd move to California to help her get elected. He might even help in the primary. This was very important for the party. She was the strongest Democratic candidate.

There would be several Clinton-Feinstein phone calls, not just the lone conversation that has been widely reported. The first came on Thursday, Jan. 8, while Feinstein and her husband were vacationing briefly in Aspen, Colo. The final two occurred last Thursday, while Feinstein was in San Jose promoting her new ballot initiative on education. Clinton called and they chatted; then Feinstein dialed back to say she'd all but decided not to run.

On Tuesday, she told the world: She loves the Senate and she hates campaigning. Specifically, she hates being shot at by opponents. And she'd been shot at too many times in too short a time span for the wounds to heal.

*

It isn't so much that the bullets hurt personally, Feinstein told Clinton and others. It's that the constant barrage of nasty ads hurts politically. She could survive the Democratic primary against mega-millionaire Al Checchi and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. But she might be too bloodied for the general election battle against Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

Clinton said he'd see what he could do. Maybe he could clear the field.

A White House emissary suggested that Checchi drop down to the lieutenant governor's race. Not a bad place to start for somebody who never before had run for office, whose only claim to political viability was a $550-million bankroll.

Feinstein and Checchi could run as a ticket in the fall. If both were elected, she'd make lieutenant governor a real job--as Clinton has the vice presidency for Al Gore.

If Checchi had bowed out of the governor's race, Davis might well have too, perhaps to run for attorney general. Davis dreaded a repeat of 1992, when he contested Feinstein for the Senate nomination and was trounced. Moreover, he ran a very ugly ad against her that outraged women activists and sullied his image. His strategy in this year's primary was to keep his powder dry while Checchi fired away at Feinstein. Without Checchi's cover, however, Davis might have waved the white flag.

But Checchi would have none of this. And as one Feinstein associate asks, "Why didn't they come up with this idea six months ago? You can't clear the field after a guy spends $6 million of his own money running for governor."

Perhaps, then, Checchi would agree not to attack Feinstein personally and, instead, run a "positive" campaign focused solely on policy issues. A novel idea. Dream on, Checchi said. He'd do whatever he had to, spend whatever it took, to get elected governor.

Blum and Checchi have known each other professionally for 20 years. Months ago, according to a Feinstein source, Blum thought Checchi had given him his word to lay off personal trashing. Later, Checchi reneged, declaring that his pledge was good only until Feinstein entered the race.

"That's like the Cowboys saying they won't sack [49ers quarterback] Steve Young until the game starts," Blum has noted.

*

Clinton really couldn't do much. After a White House aide leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle word of the president's initial call, Davis and Checchi phoned the White House complaining about favoritism. Clinton then backed off any notion of helping Feinstein raise money in the primary.

That didn't matter to Feinstein anyway. She could raise plenty of money and her husband's fortune was also available. Davis didn't bother her either. But those Checchi attack ads--she didn't need that, she concluded. Being the senior senator of the nation's largest state isn't shabby. In fact, it's fun.

She'll run for reelection in 2000, Feinstein told me.

As for this spring, Checchi and Davis now have each other to bloody. And they will.

Without a shot being fired, the queen is dead. Long live the king. He's looking like Lungren.

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