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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Where Have We Seen That Centrist Style Before?

November 02, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

"ADIOS Pete Wilson," read the bumper strip. It was the hot item at a Latino Democratic rally Saturday in Boyle Heights. People wore the red and white stickers on their T-shirts and their hats. Gray Davis held one over his head and the cheers were earsplitting.

"It's one of my favorite signs," he shouted, sporting a grin as wide as the political coalition that has given him a comfortable lead in the polls going into Tuesday's election.

How comfortable? So comfortable that Davis is cautioning supporters against overconfidence while Republican Dan Lungren is evoking the memory of Harry Truman. Both gubernatorial candidates are mouthing--for different reasons--the old bromide: "The only poll that counts is the one on election day." When you hear that stuff, it's the fat lady singing.

Inside the headquarters of the United Farm Workers union Saturday, what you heard were whoops, hollers and screams as Davis held up the sign and told its story: A student at nearby Roosevelt High had handmade the original for Davis' appearance there the previous week with Vice President Al Gore. An inspired Democratic staffer then had 2,000 Adios Pete bumper strips printed up and distributed all over East L.A., where Wilson is the boogeyman, on Halloween or any other day.

The retiring governor has been demonized by party pols and Latino activists for his crusades against illegal immigration and racial preferences. Many Latinos have been frightened by the mean-spirited and divisive demon into the arms of Democrats, especially Gray Davis.

Campaigning with other members of the Democratic ticket, Davis was treated like a rock star in the packed, stuffy union hall. People reached over security agents to high-five the candidate, thrusting scraps of paper at him for his autograph.

"There he is, Pam, the next governor--look!" exclaimed one excited man, who had waited outside on the crowded sidewalk for a glimpse of the guy most insiders had thought too dull ever to be elected governor.


Actually, looking up at the podium, you could see more of Pete Wilson than just his name on a bumper strip. Ironically, Davis and Wilson are a lot alike. And that's meant as a compliment to both men.

Looking beyond their differences on illegal immigration, affirmative action and labor unions, you'll find similar styles and traits that have made each politician a winner.

Foremost is their appeal to the center.

"We've all learned from Pete Wilson the magic of his swing voter universe," says Kam Kuwata, a veteran Democratic consultant and Davis advisor. "He'll never be a hero to any one ideological group, but he understands how to put together the winning combination. You've got to work the moderate, swing voter to your side. Pete Wilson has shown us the landscape."

Davis and Wilson both favor abortion rights and support the death penalty. They both oppose offshore oil drilling. Davis is supported by environmentalists; Wilson was acceptable to them when he first ran for governor in 1990. Davis says education will be his top priority; in 1990, Wilson said he wanted to be "the education governor." Davis promises more gun control; Wilson had voted for gun control as a U.S. senator. Davis claims to be fiscally prudent; Wilson clearly is. Both served in the military; Davis got a combat metal in Vietnam.

As Lungren has learned--and also Wilson's opponents before him--it's almost impossible to affix an "extremist" label to a centrist and make it stick.


"There are some similarities, yes," Davis agrees.

Here are others:

* Politics is their life, their passion. It consumes virtually their every waking hour. They don't have fires in their bellies, they have furnaces.

* Both are prolific fund-raisers. Unlike most pols, they don't mind dialing for dollars.

* They're disciplined and focused, staying "on message." It's unlikely you'd ever hear either meandering off during a debate closing--as Lungren did--about Latrell Sprewell and binding arbitration.

* They both once lost a big statewide race and learned from the humiliation--Davis in the 1992 Senate primary; Wilson in the 1978 gubernatorial primary.

* Both are charisma-challenged, although Davis is the better speaker. And he has a dry wit: "On Monday, I'm bringing in my personal charisma advisor--Vice President Al Gore," he told the Latinos.

He also said, "I'd like to see another sign: 'Adios Pete Wilson, Adios Dan Lungren, Bienvendios Gray Davis.' "

Bienvendios Gray? A good bet. Adios Pete? Si y no.

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