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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

For Lungren and Davis, 4th Time Was the Charm

October 19, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SAN FRANCISCO — They're slow learners, but finally the gubernatorial candidates have gotten the hang of debating. No spit wads. No nyah-nyahing. Just aggressive, civil discourse.

Oh, maybe some low-grade bickering here and there. Republican Dan Lungren: "Would you quit interrupting!" Democrat Gray Davis: "I'm not through here!"

It also seemed a bit bizarre to learn from Lungren--while he was advocating abstinence training and criticizing contraceptive distribution in high schools--that used condoms can be traded in for new ones at San Francisco's jail.

But there was nothing really childish like we heard in the previous three debates. No silly quibbling over how many times each candidate had been to Mexico. No rude talking over each other in insider gibberish.

The fourth and final confrontation between Atty. Gen. Lungren and Lt. Gov. Davis last Thursday night at San Francisco State drew the smallest TV audience, but it was the one debate worth watching.

You could question the candidates' strategies. They still were mired in their opponent's ancient history of a decade or two ago and thus sounded too negative. But their words did reflect their campaigns.

"Remember the medfly?" Lungren asked Davis. "You and Jerry Brown refused to act." Davis surely remembered, but it's unlikely many voters do. Or care--either about the tiny pest or the fact that Davis was Gov. Brown's top aide.

Notes pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California:

"Lungren's trying to make himself look like Ronald Reagan and make Gray Davis look like Jerry Brown. Davis is trying to position himself as a Bill Clinton 'New Democrat' and make Lungren look like Newt Gingrich. That's what they told us in the debate."

*

Lungren opened the debate by trying to tether himself to Reagan and implying that any attack on him is an assault on the ex-president.

"[Reagan] had the courage of his convictions [and] a positive, optimistic view," Lungren said. "I was proud while I was in Congress to be the single strongest supporter of Ronald Reagan's agenda. . . . His legacy has been attacked. . . . And they're continuing to do that, unleashing a political attack on me. . . ."

I kept hoping for Lloyd Bentsen to show up: "I knew Ronald Reagan. . . . You're no Ronald Reagan."

Davis' strategy is to paint his opponent as a right-wing extremist. He noted that Lungren was one of only a few House members to vote against a Safe Drinking Water Act signed by Reagan. Even Gingrich voted for it, as did then-Sen. Pete Wilson. "[Was] Reagan leading the revolution," Davis asked Lungren, "or [were] you leading your own little rogue effort?"

Lungren has been portraying Davis as a liberal tool of labor and lawyers. And the low point for the Democrat came when Lungren nailed him for ducking a position two years ago on Proposition 211, a lawyer-backed initiative that would have made high-tech companies more vulnerable to shareholders' lawsuits. "It was a dagger at the heart of high-tech," Lungren asserted.

Davis weaved around and responded weakly: "I don't think it's my job to take a position on every issue. I had no particular expertise to add." Replied Lungren: "I'm overwhelmed by your humility, Gray. You have had better relations with the liberal trial lawyers than anybody in California. You've gotten $2 million from them this year." (Actually, $2.4 million.)

*

The rap on both candidates is that they have wasted too much time and money tearing down each other and have not focused enough on building up their own stature. But in this debate, they did try to project some vision.

Lungren: "We will fight to restore local government and accountability to our schools . . . ensure that criminals go to prison . . . protect our growing economy by lowering taxes, regulation. . . ."

Davis: "I would be very tight with your tax dollars . . . passionate about education . . . committed to the environment and be death on violent crime."

OK, so they can sound the same. But there are major differences--on abortion, the environment, guns, affirmative action, school vouchers. . . .

Polls show Davis ahead by three to nine points. Lungren's chore is to convince centrists that he is not scary. These are the swing voters who have elected Republican Wilson--and now seem closer to Democrat Davis. The task for Davis is to dispel the notion he is just a finger-to-the-wind politician.

Unfortunately, there won't be a fifth debate in L.A. as once thought. Davis vetoed any matchup after Oct. 15, and the candidates couldn't agree on an earlier date. That is too bad because they were just getting good at this. They're finally ready for prime time.

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