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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / BILL PRESS

Democrats Are Loaded for Bear

Primary triumphs put party in a commanding position for fall --and Al Gore is smiling, too.

June 04, 1998|BILL PRESS | Bill Press, who formerly chaired the California Democratic Party, is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."

Does this primary election bode well for Democrats? Does Bill Clinton like interns?

Some election results are murky. Not this one. On every important level--governor, senate, propositions--Tuesday's primary was a clear win for Democrats and puts them in excellent position to score big in November. Democrats emerge from the primary with the strongest candidates, plus a huge new political army ready to storm the barricades.

Starting at the top. Granted, in Gray Davis, Dan Lungren won't face the most exciting opponent. Instead, he'll face someone much more dangerous: the most experienced. Davis has more experience in governing, campaigning and fund-raising than any other Democratic candidate for governor this century.

In Lungren, of course, Davis faces another experienced politician who's charismatically challenged. The governor's race, in fact, matches up as "Dull vs. Duller." But Davis still comes out of the primary with two significant advantages over Lungren.

First, unlike Lungren, Davis has been tested in the primary. He was forced to debate the issues against two articulate candidates and won. He was forced to match his limited resources against two self-funded millionaire candidates, and won. Davis is lean. He's in great running shape for November. Lungren, with no primary challenge, is flabby and untested. Advantage Davis.

Second, Davis is better on the issues. Although a kinder, gentler version of Pete Wilson, Lungren still proudly represents the extreme GOP right-wing: anti-choice, anti-gun control, pro-voucher, pro-death penalty. Davis, a moderate Democrat--fiscal conservative, social liberal--also supports the death penalty. But his pro-choice, pro-gun control, anti-voucher, pro-environment policies are much more in tune with most California voters than Lungren's. Again, advantage Davis.

Dominant position for Davis in the governor's race. Ditto for Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate race.

Boxer, written off as political road kill by most political pundits only a year ago, proved she's an effective campaigner and strong contender for reelection. On Tuesday, Boxer received more votes than both of her major primary opponents combined. Boxer not only proved her vote-getting ability in the primary, she once again demonstrated her luck of the draw. Matt Fong is the only Republican in the country accused by Rep. Dan Burton of accepting illegal foreign contributions. And, if he even knows his own position on abortion, Fong still hasn't learned how to communicate it to voters.

Imagine: The high-energy, articulate Boxer vs. the laid-back, bumbling Fong. I can't wait for the first debate.

To Boxer's and Davis' individual strengths, now add the huge new political army. A tremendous advantage, not just for Davis and Boxer, but for the entire statewide Democratic slate. The army? A mobilized and energized California labor force. Thanks to Pete Wilson.

Wilson conspired to put Proposition 226, the so-called "paycheck protection" initiative, on the California ballot as the horse he would ride on one more quixotic gallop to the White House. What irony. With voters turning down 226, Wilson not only had his own horse shot out from under him, but may also have unwittingly dealt Lungren a fatal blow.

Because, in taking on organized labor, Wilson awakened a sleeping giant. California labor unions, threatened with their own political extinction, organized like never before. They built an old-fashioned political machine: recruiting tens of thousands of union workers to walk precincts, make phone calls, distribute literature and canvass voters. They did the impossible. They turned a sure winner into a sorry loser. But for organized labor, that's not the end, that's just the beginning.

Unfortunately for Lungren and Fong, labor's political machine didn't disappear on Tuesday. It just won its first battle. Now it's hungry and angry--hungry for another victory, angry at those who dared try to put it out of business. Union members are ready to march again, in November, against Lungren and other statewide Republicans. Let the battle begin!

One footnote. As California goes, so goes the nation. Voters on Tuesday chose experience over charisma. That bodes well, not only for California Democrats in November 1998 but, if the economy stays strong, for Democrats nationwide in November 2000. Gray Davis isn't the only one smiling this morning. So is Al Gore.

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