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Candidates Fight It Out in Shadow of Top Race

Cruz Bustamante and Tim Leslie, largely eclipsed by governor's campaign, stress importance of understudy job they seek.


One candidate zoomed through his entire political career in just five years, rocketing from behind-the-scenes legislative aide to Assembly speaker. The other lost so many local elections he swore off politics for good--before changing his mind and entering the Legislature a dozen years ago.

Both were motivated to run for higher office by term limits, both say it might be their political career capper, and both have something larger to prove by becoming California's lieutenant governor.

Electing relative newcomer Cruz Bustamante would make the Assembly Democrat the highest-ranking Latino in California, the first elected to statewide office since Romualdo Pacheco became lieutenant governor in 1871.

Victory for state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) would prove--to himself and his supporters--that an election-year bout with a particularly lethal form of cancer is not a political death knell.

Polls have consistently shown Bustamante well ahead, but that gap closes when likely voters, who tend to be heavily Republican, are surveyed.

So, while gubernatorial candidates grab whatever campaign limelight is to be had, Leslie and Bustamante travel up and down California trying to persuade people that the understudy job is important, too.

Introducing Bustamante at a Fresno fund-raiser last week, Vice President Al Gore turned that quest for respect into a joke: "Don't ever underestimate the importance of that second position!" he said.

Compared to other states where lieutenant governors share power with the governor, California has a constitutionally wimpy position. The job's major duty is serving on panels for higher education and trade while waiting to run the state when the governor travels outside its boundaries.

Both Bustamante, 45, and Leslie, 56, promise to make the post into something more.

Referring to a trade mission to Mexico he organized as speaker, Bustamante says he would increase commerce with California's southern neighbor. "We have two times the economy that Texas does and yet we have half the trade," he said. "They've been eating our lunch."

Leslie wants to focus on shifting remedial education out of state universities and into community colleges. "Taxpayers get the most bang for their buck at community colleges," he said. "So why would you go to the universities to provide remedial ed?"

Bustamante is ahead in the fund-raising race, bringing in $1.1 million since January, nearly twice as much as Leslie.

Leslie has drawn money from Republican strongholds, such as developers and conservative political action committees, but also from Northern California interests, such as ski resorts and lumber companies.

One of his top backers is Fred Sacher, an Orange County developer who was a major contributor to Newt Gingrich's political committee and one of the nation's biggest contributors to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. Sacher has given Leslie $27,000 so far this year.

Bustamante's campaign has been heavily financed by trade and teachers unions and has attracted some statewide Latino support. He also draws agricultural funds from the Central Valley and has consistently received Indian gaming money--more than $50,000 this year. He supports Proposition 5, the initiative that would grant more autonomy to Indian casinos.

At the top of each candidate's campaign contributions list is a controversial developer.

For Bustamante, it is Sacramentan Angelo Tsakopoulos, a giant in Democrat fund-raising circles who was invited to a White House coffee. Tsakopoulos has given Bustamante nearly $100,000 since January.

The Times reported last year that Tsakopoulos told President Clinton about his fight with environmental regulators after building atop a wetland. After the meeting with Clinton, the Times reported, government pressure on Tsakopoulos waned.

Another developer with environmental skirmishes in his past is throwing his money behind the Republican. Alex Spanos, one of Gov. Pete Wilson's major backers, infused Leslie's campaign with $50,000 in July.

Spanos ran into problems a decade ago over a Stockton housing development near a hawk habitat. Critics charged that his contributions to Wilson muted the Department of Fish and Game's efforts.

Leslie Navigates Choppy Waters

While Bustamante is buoyed by many large contributions, Leslie has had to patch together a number of smaller ones.

The $250 price tag on entry to Leslie's fall fund-raiser at Lake Tahoe drew a group of friends to a cocktail cruise followed by dinner at a shoreline restaurant. But the wind picked up, the lake got choppy and the captain canceled the boat ride.

Rough waters that night could have been a metaphor for Leslie's campaign in the early days. It began with cancer and continued through polls showing him trailing.

By the time of the doomed cruise, however, Leslie was heartened by polls calling the race a tossup.

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