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California and the West | Capitol Journal

King of the Center Says Lungren Ran Too Far to the Right

November 09, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Add Gov. Pete Wilson to the long list of Republicans who think that Dan Lungren ran an inexcusably inept race for governor.

The party's nominee exhibited a weird mix of naivete and arrogance, Wilson and other GOP pols are complaining privately. The attorney general was naive about how to run a big-time race, they assert, and too arrogant to accept advice.

In fact, Wilson firmly believes he could have whipped Democrat Gray Davis, were he not barred by term limits from running. "I'm convinced I could have," he told me.

Private polls, the departing governor contends, showed he would have beaten anybody in a Republican primary or a general election. His job rating is back up to a level equal to Ronald Reagan's at this stage of their governorships, he notes. Also, 70% of the voters think California is headed in the right direction, according to a Times exit poll.

"That's one of the ironies of this election," Wilson says. Crime, taxes and welfare are down; employment, income and the economy are up. And schools are getting help.

"We lost because those issues weren't adequately discussed."

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This is not just Monday morning quarterbacking for Wilson. He has been saying these things privately for weeks, but has refused to pounce on Lungren publicly.

Unlike Lungren, however, Wilson would have pounced all over education, he says. He would have pointed to his recent record--statewide testing, class-size reduction, ending social promotion--and talked of building on these reforms. He would have promoted his Proposition 8, which called--among other things--for tougher teacher standards. Voters crushed it, but Wilson contends if he had been running, enough money would have been raised to pass the underfunded initiative.

Regardless, Wilson maintains, Lungren should have latched onto Prop. 8's reforms. And like virtually every pol, he thinks the GOP candidate should have gotten off crime and tried to broaden his appeal toward the center.

Davis ran as a Wilson centrist while Lungren stayed to the right, as if he were running in a Republican primary.

"And let's face it," Wilson says, "the abortion stance killed him. I mean, my God, Davis was relentless." Lungren only exacerbated his vulnerability, the governor believes, by running a TV ad trying to defend his anti-abortion position.

Lungren got only 28% of the moderate vote. Wilson, who favors most abortion rights, received nearly half in his two gubernatorial elections, Times exit polls found.

Wilson also says it was "a basic error" for Lungren to get "fixated on . . . character [as] the defining issue." Running as a politician of good character--A governor we can trust--seems an oxymoron to many voters, he observes.

"The other thing is," he continues, "character is something that is inferred from your actions, from what you are concentrating on in your campaign. You can't assert, 'I am of good character.' It doesn't work."

In short, Wilson's eager to make this point: Voters didn't reject his policies when they elected the first Democratic governor in 16 years. To the contrary, Davis achieved the biggest Democratic landslide in 40 years by running on Wilson's policies.

Well, not exactly.

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There is the unpleasant matter of public employee unions. Wilson promoted Prop. 226, the failed anti-union initiative on the June ballot. That energized labor and propelled Davis' comeback.

Wilson also wounded Lungren by vetoing two gun-control bills--aimed at assault weapons and junk handguns--and keeping alive a popular issue for Davis. Lungren was too frightened by right-wing gunners to support new gun controls and that, in turn, frightened centrist voters.

But the biggest rap on Wilson--the one heard in both parties and articulated the loudest by Davis--is that his "wedge-issue politics" has cost Republicans a generation of Latino voters. The governor's 1994 crusade against illegal immigration is mostly blamed. He bridles at that, blaming "professional Democrat muckrakers."

Actually, Wilson apparently has not cost Republicans a bigger share of the Latino vote, according to Times exit polls. Lungren received 23%, the same as Wilson in 1994 and ex-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1982. (Wilson got 35% in 1990.)

The political significance, however, is that the Latinos' share of the electorate since 1982 has doubled from 6% to 13% and is headed much higher. These are ominous demographics for Republicans.

Would Wilson have whipped Davis? Doubt it. This was a Democratic year. Would he have run a better race than Lungren? No doubt. It's all academic, but Lungren could have benefited from Professor Wilson's tutoring.

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