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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Endgame Likely to Rely on Negativity

October 16, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

After both have spent most of their adult lives in a marathon drive for the governor's office, now comes the sprint for Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren.

In eighteen days, California voters will pick between the two. At the close of the final debate, with its attention to sometimes numbing detail and occasionally illuminating nuance, the state's voters enter a harsh endgame that will probably be marked by glaring negativity and burning buzzwords.

Thursday's debate in San Francisco demonstrated how each candidate has cleaved his message to its basics. A campaign that began with flowery advertisements that glowingly revered the candidates has been distilled to its essence.

For Lungren, the campaign is all about crime, education and character. For Davis, it is about abortion, gun control, education and oil drilling.

For Lungren, of course, the stakes Thursday night were much higher, since he entered the debate behind in all public and private polling, even his own campaign's. After a rocky first half, when he was put on the defensive by the questioners, he responded with one of his best performances.

For Davis, who needed to get through the night without a major gaffe, the debate began in typically disciplined and negative fashion. His opening statement and the answer to the first question were literal recitations of his campaign advertisements, expanded a bit to fill the time.

But he often seemed harsh and, in the second half of the debate, defensive. At one simple question about why he had remained neutral on Proposition 211, a 1996 initiative important to the state's high-tech industry, he remarked: "I don't think it's my job to take a position on every issue on the ballot."

"Each was well-prepared, on his own record as well as on his opponent's record," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "They have really refined the message--each of them has refined the message. The responses were more crisp."

Still, nothing happened to change the course of the race, Jeffe and others said Thursday night--a situation that left some Republicans dispirited.

"Lungren either has to throw the bomb and connect, or Davis has to do something really stupid," one respected Republican said when asked how Lungren could come from behind now.

Lungren is expected to spend the next 18 days drumming home his message that Davis has been more liberal than the state's voters over the years. After limiting his advertising to the issue of crime for several weeks--a stagnation for which he has been criticized by other Republicans--Lungren on Thursday began airing an ad that throws the kitchen sink at Davis.

The ad says that Davis has been "on the wrong side" of California voters on issues like Proposition 13, term limits, school choice, affirmative action, the death penalty and others.

So many are the accusations, however--six in 30 seconds--that they pass in a blur. And they seem intended to energize Lungren's fellow Republicans more than to broaden his reach, Jeffe said.

"It was appealing to the Republican base," she said. "All are the buzzwords that motivate conservative Republicans.

Lungren also will probably press his contention that he alone has the character to be governor. Or, as he repeatedly put it Thursday when he made vows on the issues, "Those aren't political promises, those are commitments."

Davis, like Lungren, was pushing partisan buttons in the debate and can be expected to continue that thrust in the coming weeks.

Throughout the debate, he repeatedly characterized Lungren as a man who would take the state backward.

Repeatedly, he drilled Lungren on the issue of abortion rights, which Davis favors and Lungren does not. He criticized his past votes on the environment and his handling of the state's assault weapons ban.

The tone of the debate, and the expectations for the final 18 days of campaigning, suggest that neither campaign expects outside events to determine the race, as both sides once feared. With the maelstrom about President Clinton's sexual behavior calmed for now, Republicans do not expect the election to be a landslide referendum against the president, as they once hoped.

And Democrats have yet to see the massive backlash and Democratic surge that some had predicted.

Instead, indications Thursday were that the election was homing in on traditional territory, a last-ditch battle to turn out partisan voters and, only secondarily, to appeal to independents.

"Everything is jelling into partisan loyalty," Jeffe said.

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