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A Few Jabs, No Major Gaffes or Surprises

NEWS ANALYSIS

May 14, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The candidates who probably benefited the most from Wednesday's forum were those who started the day ahead and did nothing to undercut their nominal leads in the race for California governor: Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.

Lungren seemed to gain the most, if anything. With his earnest tone and knit brow, he injected occasional humor into the proceedings and demonstrated an easygoing affability that could make it tougher for Democrats to paint him as the right-wing extremist they hope to portray in the fall campaign.

"Scary," said Alan Arkatov, a Democratic analyst, offering a nervous assessment of Lungren's strong potential in November (and most definitely not referring to how the candidate seemed Wednesday). "Batting cleanup and having no pressure was a real opportunity, and he took great advantage of it."

Candidates Gang Up on Checchi

Among the Democrats, Rep. Jane Harman--trailing both Davis and Al Checchi in the polls--may have helped dispel her reputation as the content-lite candidate, offering specific answers on the state's budget surplus (use some for education, some for infrastructure, some for tax cuts) as well as a range of other issues.

But she appeared to undercut her summons to higher ground--and her role as an attack-ad victim--by using her closing remarks to verbally strafe all three opponents in slashing, negative terms. And her strategy of focusing most of her fire on Checchi seemed curious, given that polls have shown Davis and Harman in closest competition for the same group of Democratic voters.

As spectacle, it was a rock 'em, sock 'em show. For about 90 minutes, the candidates peppered their discussion of taxes, crime and abortion with jabs, sly pokes and, here and there, a punch right in the nose.

As a practical matter, however, the forum essentially produced a draw. There were no knockouts and no major gaffes, and only a few blows that drew blood.

Checchi, however, was clearly the target du jour--to the benefit of Davis, who enjoys a wafer-thin lead in the latest voter surveys and, ever cautious, did little to imperil that front-runner position.

From the opening statements, Checchi faced a steady assault from all comers and he seemed unsettled throughout the 90 minutes, even stumbling through some of his oft-repeated stock answers to questions he has faced over and over.

Perhaps his worst moment came when he tried to defend an assertion, contained in one of his many TV spots, that he "marched" with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of civil rights. Explaining that he attended the 1963 March on Washington as a 15-year-old boy, he went on to say, "There were probably half a million people there, and we needed a verb" to use for his ad.

Candid moments like that were among the greatest benefits of the forum, which showed the candidates in a far more natural setting than their softly focused, minutely scripted 30-second TV spots.

The session drew the candidates out from behind those ads, highlighting the differences between Lungren and his three Democratic rivals--and, strikingly, many of their similarities.

All four candidates voiced opposition to Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative. All but Checchi called for some sort of tax cut. All endorsed greater local say over education policy, with Lungren favoring vouchers to boost private schools.

Exchanges on Style, Not Substance

There were other differences, to be sure. The most notable involved abortion rights, which Lungren alone opposes.

The devoutly Catholic candidate explained his position as a matter of personal faith and insisted, almost as an aside, that there is not a whole lot he could do on abortion policy as governor.

Indeed, he cited just three areas where he would act--parental consent (which he favors), "partial-birth" abortion (which he opposes), and taxpayer funding (which he would severely limit)--and asserted on those three issues, "I'm with all or most of California."

It was not surprising, then, that the most heated exchanges came over matters of style, not substance.

Notwithstanding all their campaign posturing and the requisite niceties, there was a distinctly raw edge to much of the parry-and-thrust, an added bit of spite underscored by their needling asides: Lungren answering a question on bilingual education by taking after Checchi's spotty voting record; Checchi using a biblical reference to tweak Lungren on budget policy. (Not to mention all the off-camera smirking.)

No new substantive ground was broken, aside from Lungren announcing his formal opposition to Proposition 227 and the four candidates staking out their preliminary positions on how to handle the new state budget surplus.

More than anything, the candidates seemed to use the session to address what had been perceived as their respective weaknesses going into the forum.

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