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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

An Old-Fashioned Governor's Race for Davis, Lungren

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

For a contest widely considered the most important election in America, the race for California governor doesn't offer much hype or historical portent.

It won't shatter any campaign spending records. It won't blaze any trails for women or minorities. It won't be a choice between polar extremes.

If the June primary was a political pigout, with its sumptuous spending and gluttonous advertising, the general election should be more akin to a serving of plain old meat and potatoes.

The contest between Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis offers something California hasn't seen in at least 20 years. It pits two buttoned-down white male career politicians--more similar than either would like to admit--who each hold statewide office at a time of general contentment and widely shared economic prosperity.

Dispensing with the usual posturing, the candidates have agreed to a series of five debates--more than in the last four gubernatorial campaigns combined--starting Friday in San Diego.

Quite coincidentally, the candidates' similarities in background (both are Roman Catholics from upper-middle-class Republican homes), government experience (both have held legislative and executive offices), and overall approach to government (both are incrementalists) may serve to focus attention on more substantive differences.

"When you have two candidates that are evenly matched . . . the default position that voters move back to is, 'OK, where do they stand on the issues I care about?' " said Garry South, Davis' chief strategist. "Unlike previous campaigns that got sidetracked onto issues of gender, ethnicity and sideshows, this is a race that is going to focus on a handful of issues that matter to people."

Virtually everyone expects the outcome Nov. 3 to be very close. And most expect the tenor of the general election to be somewhat different from the primary.

That is not because of any warmth between Davis and Lungren (there isn't any). Rather, it is because both sides took away the same message from the results June 2: Watch what you say about your opponent, and how you say it.

"The public is not interested in the politics of negativity," said Steve Merksamer, a veteran GOP strategist who is close to Lungren.

"There is a huge penalty to be paid in terms of . . . trying to obliterate an opponent," agreed South. He pointed to "poster boy" Al Checchi, who sank a fortune, literally, into negative advertising in the primary campaign, only to fail miserably in his bid for the Democratic nod.

That is not to say that the campaign won't get rough and the candidates won't take plenty of shots, cheap or otherwise.

For all the high-minded discussion of education and economics, neither candidate can resist excursions into matters such as Davis' Vietnam War record (pointing up Lungren's lack of military service) or Lungren's outgoing suburban family life (inviting comparison to the cloistered Davis, married and childless, in his West Hollywood condo.)

More significant, Davis is counting on four issues--abortion, tobacco, guns and the environment--to paint Lungren as outside California's political mainstream. Lungren hopes to use two Republican standbys--crime and taxes--to portray Davis as far more liberal than he lets on.

As ever, "the fight is over the middle," said GOP consultant Don Sipple, a veteran of Pete Wilson's two successful runs for governor. "The job of the two campaigns is to quantify and prove the 'risk' the other represents."

Lungren and Davis unquestionably differ on issues, not to mention overall political philosophies. No one would mistake one for the other. Davis supports abortion rights; Lungren is opposed. Lungren would use government money to allow poor students to attend private schools; Davis opposes so-called vouchers.

"There is a contrast between the two candidates," said David Puglia, Lungren's campaign chief, not just on issues but "a style contrast, a personality contrast, a character contrast."

"That's one of the reasons we pushed for frequent debates," Puglia said, "to present those differences to the voters."

But neither candidate occupies the political extreme. Indeed, on a striking number of issues their differences are a matter of degree--or, at most, of one-upmanship. For example:

* Both support the current 10-year moratorium on offshore oil drilling, though Lungren voted in the past to support drilling. Davis has called for a permanent ban.

* Both favor the death penalty and the state's three-strikes sentencing law. But Lungren has considerably more hands-on experience as California's top cop.

* Both are pressing lawsuits against the tobacco industry, though Lungren was among the last attorney generals in the nation to pursue his litigation.

* Both endorsed a ban on assault-type weapons, though Lungren has been accused of failing to adequately enforce the state law.

At the same time, each can point to certain parts of his record that belie a left- or right-wing label.

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