SACRAMENTO — The hottest topic in the campaign for governor lately--plastered all over television and preached on the campaign trail--is an issue that both major candidates support: the three-strikes criminal sentencing law.
On Wednesday, Republican Dan Lungren called a news conference to repeat his claim that the dispute is over integrity, not just policy. Lungren, the state attorney general, charged that Democratic rival Gray Davis, California's lieutenant governor, is falsely representing himself as a fighter for the 1994 ballot measure when he was merely a supporter.
The dispute illustrates an increasingly tense campaign that has not only turned negative in recent weeks, but has featured regular bickering between the two major candidates about degrees of difference on issues such as abortion and the death penalty.
"Those of us who were there--who worked on that project from morning until night, we worked on it endlessly--never saw hide nor hair of Gray Davis," Lungren told reporters Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol.
"This is again an example of him violating the rule that my parents told me about when I was just a kid: It is not good manners to take credit for something you had nothing to do with."
Davis' staff on Wednesday defended his role in support of the issue when voters approved the plan to send three-time convicted felons to jail for life. "There has never been any question about Gray's support for three strikes," said Davis campaign manager Garry South.
Davis has blasted Lungren for being a hard-liner against abortion rights, an assertion the Republican camp disputes. Lungren has attacked Davis for not having been aggressive enough in supporting the death penalty. And both campaigns are demanding apologies from the other for offenses uttered during their debates.
They are "like two schoolboys" squabbling, said Dan Hamburg, the Green Party candidate for governor, who spoke Wednesday just a few blocks from Lungren's news conference.
They are "Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, two fiddlers playing the same tune with just a slightly different riff here and there."
Lungren's news conference Wednesday continued a see-saw exchange between the two men on the three-strikes issue that has lasted more than a week.
The Republican candidate was responding to a new television commercial in which Davis is responding to Lungren's criticism.
The Democratic advertisement begins with a narrator suggesting that Lungren has distorted Davis' record on the death penalty. "Now, Lungren is attacking on three strikes," it continues.
The commercial says Davis "endorsed" one version of the three-strikes law and later supported another that was passed by voters in Proposition 184. Unlike the proposition, the earlier version would have required a life sentence only when the third strike was a violent felony.
On Wednesday, Davis' campaign released documents indicating that he supported the ballot measure while he was a candidate for reelection to the lieutenant governor's office in 1994. In the official 1994 state ballot pamphlet, Davis wrote in his candidate statement that he supports life sentences for three-time felony offenders.
Still, the tone of Lungren's response has been outrage, suggesting that Davis is a political opportunist who jumped on a political bandwagon after it became the popular thing to do.
The most pointed attack comes in a recent Republican television commercial in which a founder of the three-strikes law suggests that his daughter's murder is being exploited by the Democrats.
"It's wrong for Gray Davis to use the memory of my daughter and other victims to take credit for something he did not do," Mike Reynolds says to the camera.
At the news conference Wednesday, Lungren sought comments from two primary sponsors of the three-strikes version that Davis said he favored. Both men--one a Republican legislator and one a district attorney--said they never saw any signs of Davis' involvement on the issue.
Davis campaign officials reacted strongly Wednesday, saying they were working with Democratic sponsors of the bill--not the Republicans who spoke Wednesday. And they repeated their counter-charge that Lungren did not testify when his version of the bill was under fire in a legislative committee.
"This is ridiculous," South said. "I would just ask you to apply the same standard or burden of proof to Dan Lungren on education that he is applying to us on crime. Now that education has popped up to the top of the list he's got commercials blabbering about education--but where is his record?
"The bottom line is that what's good for the goose is good for the gander," he said.