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California and the West

After Forum, Candidates Hit Campaign Trail

Politics: The three Democrats and one Republican amplify themes sounded in debate as gubernatorial race enters stretch run to June primary.

May 15, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the wake of a debate that left most of them claiming success, the major candidates for governor fanned out Thursday in search of momentum that could propel them to victory in the primary election less than three weeks away.

By the looks of it, nearly everyone saw the day-after front-runner in the mirror.

There was Democratic businessman Al Checchi, broadly perceived to have lost the most in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times forum, hoofing it across San Francisco like a presidential contender. And Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, feeding jocular anti-Checchi lines to a receptive audience of miners in San Diego. And U.S. Rep. Jane Harman continuing her assault against the other candidates as though the debate never ended. And Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, like Harman a Democrat, stumping in the Silicon Valley with a relaxed confidence that has eluded him for much of the primary season.

Never mind that most of California didn't see the debate, and--if tradition follows--will come to some determination of the "winner" after days of post-debate coverage. For the candidates, the post-debate period provided a fresh slate on which to write their own version of reality.

"I feel I'm the luckiest person on the planet," a buoyant Davis said. "I'm in a race against two extraordinarily wealthy individuals, one of whom is a very capable congresswoman. But it's becoming clear to me that voters want a governor who is tested and who has clear vision and who they can trust, and increasingly they seem to be indicating that it will be me."

The three others, of course, begged to differ. And among voters, there seemed to be no immediate consensus.

"I watched it live, for the first 20 minutes, then I turned it off," said Hector Vargas, a construction worker from Ontario. "It got boring. . . . Overall, they were just putting each other down. They weren't addressing the issues I wanted to hear. I still haven't decided who to vote for."

Analysts who watched the debate in its entirety said Lungren and Davis helped themselves the most, largely because they entered stronger than the others. Davis, according to recent polls, holds a narrow lead over his Democratic opponents, and Lungren is the only major Republican candidate.

Harman got points for offering specifics--largely by addressing what she would do with the state's massive budget surplus. Checchi, although he did not commit any major gaffes, was hammered by all three opponents for his controversial television ads and spent much of the debate playing defense.

On Thursday, Davis certainly went out of his way to play up his debate performance. He discounted Harman's chances, declaring that the run for the Democratic nomination "is pretty much a two-person race between myself and Mr. Checchi."

At a Sunnyvale computer industry forum and in an interview, Davis said he is benefiting now from two decades of work. "What's really happening. . . is that bread I have cast on the water over the last 25 years is coming back to me. It's that simple."

For good measure, Davis kept up the pressure on Checchi. He declared the other Democrat's economic proposals too costly to be financed through the state's economic growth, as Checchi has insisted.

"His proposals don't add up," Davis said. "It's really tooth-fairy economics."

Harman too hit at Checchi and sideswiped the others as well.

She noted that she had offered to handle the $4-billion budget surplus by investing half in education and construction projects and the other half in tax breaks to renters, those buying their own health insurance and partly to those paying vehicle registration fees.

"That's what Gov. Harman will do," she said at a West Hollywood breakfast meeting with members of the gay and lesbian community. "Gov. Lungren is going to give you the whole car tax. Gov. Checchi is going to try to pay for his $15 billion in new investments--with no [new] taxes, you understand. . . . And Gov. Davis has a mixed plan."

In Wednesday's debate, Harman took after Checchi for his ads, fiercely telling him that she "resented" what she termed his distortions of her congressional voting record. On Thursday, she picked up where she left off.

"I liked the debate," she said. "I think it was a chance for us to show that we are different from each other and for me to seek a little revenge on a fellow who has good qualities--let's be positive--but has also engaged in absolute flat distortions of my record and some others, and I resent that."

Although Harman said she believes that the forum "changed the atmosphere" of the campaign, some of her rhetoric had a never-say-die theme that echoed her third-place standing in recent polls.

If she wins, she told the West Hollywood audience, "the victory won't just be mine, but the victory will be for those who never waver and set their course early in life and absolutely never, never quit. That's you and that's me."

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