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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

In the Ring, With Contenders for Governor

March 23, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

Gray scored points, but Jane racked up the victory. Al needed an ice pack.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis reverted to habit Sunday and attacked his campaign opponents. That seemed to startle--if not exactly surprise--many of the 1,300 delegates at the Democratic state convention in downtown L.A. But, in truth, Davis had little alternative, given his slim pocketbook and waning position in the gubernatorial race.

Political neophyte Al Checchi, meanwhile, tried to gloss over the fact that in all his TV ads he has yet to acknowledge being a Democrat. He went on at length about "why I'm a Democrat." It's "central to everything I believe," summarized the candidate who has been targeting Republican and independent voters.

Rep. Jane Harman of Torrance asserted right off that "I'm proud to be a Democrat"--hoping to clean up a little mess she created recently by bragging about being called "the best Republican in the Democratic Party."

Harman was attacked for that goof by both Checchi and Davis as the candidates appeared back-to-back for the first time in the campaign. But Davis saved his biggest hit for Checchi, denouncing the airline tycoon for donating money in 1996 to Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and Steve Forbes.

The only candidate not throwing blows was Harman.

She was the main object of curiosity at the three-day convention. A candidate for less than six weeks, Harman suddenly has surged ahead as the Democratic front-runner, according to the independent Field Poll. A recent survey showed her leading Checchi by two points and Davis by six. It further indicated that her support has come out of the hide of Davis, who in February led the Democratic field.

Checchi, a super-rich corporate takeover artist, and Harman, whose wealthy husband manufactures audio equipment, both have one huge advantage over Davis: very deep pockets. While Davis scrambles for private donations, Checchi and Harman write their own checks. He can't afford TV ads; they run commercials ceaselessly.

Poor Gray. Literally.

*

Poor Gray might as well have been Davis' given name at the convention.

"Poor Gray, all that [party] work for all these years and now no money," one delegate was overheard telling another Friday night as candidates made the rounds trying to hustle up volunteer workers. One neutral politician, alluding to the immense, insider cynicism toward Davis after his 24 years of aggressive politicking, told me: "The word going around is, 'I actually feel sorry for Gray."'

This convention was particularly important for Davis. Since he'll be vastly outspent by Harman and Checchi, the lieutenant governor needs to attract party activists for free labor.

Friday night resembled a cattle show for delegates, as political consultants led their candidates from caucus to caucus for pitching and pandering.

"Friends, I have walked the walk with you for a very long time," Davis told the gay caucus. "I have marched in seven gay parades."

Checchi, whose grandparents emigrated from Italy, told the Latino caucus: "I guess we Latin people are a lot alike. We share a common religion. . . . We know how to work hard."

"Hello, sisters," Harman greeted the women's caucus. "May the best woman win."

Since Harman is the only woman among the major gubernatorial candidates, she's in great position. An estimated 56% of the Democratic voters are women. She also benefits from apparent voter dissatisfaction with the other choices. Unlike Checchi, the congresswoman has government experience. And unlike Davis, she is a fresh face to most Californians.

The consensus, however, is that this race still is up for grabs.

Harman now needs to sustain her momentum through the next round of polls to convince party activists she really is the front-runner. For many of them--and especially the political pros--the crucial question is not who would be the best governor, but who's the best candidate to battle Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the prospective GOP nominee.

Davis registered highest on the applause meter Sunday, evoking a David and Goliath persona. "I know two things," he said to cheers, referring to his rich rivals. "Your vote is not for sale. And second, I offer voters a wealth of public service experience that no amount of money can buy."

But Harman won the weekend skirmish, because Checchi got bloodied and Davis did the dirty work. Davis did what he had to do--start trying to take out Checchi and become Harman's main male opponent.

Harman, meanwhile, took only light hits and walked away looking upbeat and positive. She'll let the guys beat up on each other.

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