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Democrats Square Off in Race for Governor

Election: Moderate candidates' first clash, at convention, defines differences. Checchi, Harman promise to seek repeal of anti-affirmative action measure; Davis won't commit.

March 23, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

The three Democratic candidates for California's governorship clashed openly for the first time Sunday over money and issues as they fought to define themselves as best suited to carry their party's banner in November.

State Democratic activists attending their convention in downtown Los Angeles first heard businessman Al Checchi criticize U.S. Rep. Jane Harman for appealing to Republicans. Then Harman sniped at Checchi for his reams of position papers, and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis attacked them both as millionaires trying to buy the election.

"I may not be the new kid on the Democratic block, but with Gray Davis, you're getting the real deal," said Davis, whose beleaguered campaign has watched first Checchi and lately Harman catch the fancy of Democratic voters.

As Davis suggested, the point of the convention was elbowing into the hearts of Democratic loyalists who are most likely to turn out for the June 2 primary. Although not a true debate, the first back-to-back-to-back appearances of the three candidates served to define differences among three generally moderate figures whose public positions on many issues have been remarkably similar.

In news conferences after their speeches, two of the candidates broke new ground: Both Checchi and Harman said that, as governor, they would seek to repeal 1996's Proposition 209, the ballot measure that outlawed racial and gender preferences in state hiring and school admissions. Davis would not commit to an effort to repeal the initiative, which was angrily and unsuccessfully fought by Democrats.

Nor would Davis commit to signing a bill sanctioning gay marriages, which both Checchi and Harman said they would enact as governor.

All told, Sunday's convention marked the opening of hostilities for the governor's contest and signaled that more vituperative clashes will probably develop in the 10 weeks left before political judgment day.

Although the candidates had not engaged before Sunday, it has been clear for months that the race for governor will be historic, at least when it comes to spending. Checchi, a major stockholder in Northwest Airlines, said Sunday that he has spent $18 million of his own money so far in the primary. The amount is double the old record, set in 1994 by Democrat Kathleen Brown, who took until June to spend $9 million. Harman, who represents the South Bay, has spent more than $4 million, most of it her own; Davis has spent about half that, all from campaign donations.

The two biggest spenders came to the weekend convention intent on proving that each is a tried-and-true Democrat. That characterization has been tested by campaign strategies relying strongly on appeals to independents and moderate Republicans under the state's new blanket primary, which allows cross-party voting. Not surprisingly, given the more tenuous nature of both his campaign finances and momentum, it was Davis who lashed out most forcefully.

The last of the three to come to the podium before more than 1,300 convention delegates, the lieutenant governor detailed his positions on education and other issues before striking at the heart of his argument.

"I am acutely aware of the vast personal resources that are arrayed against me in this campaign," he said. "I know two things: Your vote is not for sale. And second, I offer voters a wealth of public service experience that no amount of money can buy."

After insinuating that the other candidates were trying to buy votes, Davis, 55, leveled a none-too-subtle attack on their Democratic bona fides.

"I find it a little odd that one of my opponents does not identify himself as a Democrat in his commercials," he said of Checchi. "And when we were attempting to reelect a Democratic president for the first time in 60 years [in 1996] . . . for reasons best known to him, he contributed the maximum amount allowable to two of Bill Clinton's opponents, Bob Dole and Steve Forbes."

Checchi, 49, said afterward that voters know he is a Democrat. "I don't think anybody doubts that," he added. He also said that he donated to family friend Forbes and Republican nominee Dole as courtesies and that his $100,000 donation to the national Democratic Party dwarfed the few thousands sent to the GOP candidates.

Davis drew aim at Harman by expressing mock surprise at a recent Los Angeles Times story in which Harman said she was proud to be called "the best Republican in the Democratic Party."

Harman, 52, later said the remark only reflected her pride at crafting bipartisan approaches in Congress.

Checchi, in his address, anticipated criticisms of his largely nonpartisan campaign. His speech was titled "Why I'm a Democrat," a refrain that he echoed eight times as he lauded party positions on issues ranging from Social Security and the minimum wage to abortion rights.

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