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GOP Beaten at Own Game in State's Top 2 Contests

DECISION '98 | ANALYSIS

Democrats Davis, Boxer turn tables by emphasizing strengths on crime and ability to rein in taxes.

November 04, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In a surge that confirms a broad political realignment in California, Democrats were sweeping to victory Tuesday in the two major contests by redefining issues traditionally owned by Republicans and by peeling off a substantial chunk of the voters who have fueled past GOP success here.

A Times survey of voters leaving polling places showed that governor-elect Gray Davis' resounding victory over Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren was dictated in part by overwhelming voter confidence that the Democrat was best able to handle the state's foundering educational system. Overall, voters ranked education as their most important issue Tuesday.

But the lieutenant governor also beat Lungren on the issue of crime by turning that traditionally Republican issue into a referendum on the prevalence of assault weapons. And voters split over who would do the best job on taxes--in effect, meaning that Davis turned back another important issue always controlled by the Republican candidate.

Davis was not alone in his success at charging across ground typically fertile for Republicans. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who won her second term after being behind for much of the campaign to Republican nominee Matt Fong, also triumphed among voters concerned about education and crime, the latter largely on the strength of television advertising that slammed Fong's more permissive position on measures to ban assault weapons.

Democrats were strongly aided by the absence of a defining, Republican-led issue on the ballot, the role that illegal immigration served in Republican Pete Wilson's reelection in 1994. But more important were the Democrats' aggressive moves to control, or at least blunt the impact of, the traditionally Republican issues.

Moreover, both Democrats made strong inroads among the moderate and independent voters who dictate success or failure in California elections.

Davis pulled about two-thirds of self-defined moderates and registered independents, more than a third of moderate Republicans and nearly 3 in 10 conservatives. Boxer succeeded among two-thirds of moderates, more than half of independents and about 3 in 10 Republican moderates.

A Big Night for Democrats

The exit poll also indicated strong showings by Democrats in other statewide races, with Bill Lockyer leading Republican Dave Stirling in the race for attorney general, and Cruz Bustamante cruising ahead of GOP nominee Tim Leslie for the lieutenant governorship.

According to the poll, the election was not dramatically influenced by the controversy over President Clinton's affair with a former White House intern and the subsequent decision of the House Judiciary Committee to hold impeachment hearings against him.

Six in 10 voters said the Washington goings-on had no impact on their decision to vote. The percentages of those who said they were casting protest votes against the Republicans, and those who were protesting Clinton's behavior, roughly canceled each other out.

Overall, it appeared to be a year when the issues simply went to the Democrats.

"The Democrats succeeded in setting the agenda for voters," said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. "And the Republicans could not keep their constituents."

The Times poll interviewed 3,693 voters in 60 key precincts across the state.

On the heels of past victories in California by President Clinton and by Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both of whom won by emphasizing centrist positions, the results confirmed the worst fears among Republican strategists here that the influential voters who inhabit the ideological middle ground are increasingly disenchanted with Republican candidates.

The two losses left Wilson as the only California Republican to win a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate election--he won two of each--since 1987. Wilson's successes, dependent as they were on attracting the moderate voters who are now turning to Democrats, largely papered over the party's weaknesses until now.

Lungren's loss in particular stood in stark contrast to the success of Republicans in other politically influential states such as Florida and Texas, where Republican brothers Jeb and George W. Bush won convincing victories.

Both Bushes, the sons of the former president, ran campaigns that softened the party's more rigid edges and made overt appeals to minority voters.

Lungren, in comparison, strongly leaned throughout the campaign on the issue of crime to the exclusion of much else, at least in his television advertising, the chief means by which California voters get to know the candidates. And he defined it in archaic terms, politically speaking, by spending weeks arguing about who was the stronger advocate of the death penalty and three-strikes legislation.

Many Republican strategists sent open signals to the Lungren campaign to broaden its discussion of the issues and to sharpen the distinctions between the candidates on education. They were largely unsuccessful.

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