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Davis Appears to Be Making Right Move by Shifting Issues to the Center

Gray Davis has built a steady lead that ranges from 6 to 8 percentage points in public polls to double that in his own surveys. And he has done so in a way that ought to turn heads among the next class of presidential candidates in both parties.

October 19, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

SAN FRANCISCO — It took Democrat Gray Davis all of about 90 seconds in last week's gubernatorial debate here to lay each of his five high cards on the table. Before Davis had seemingly even paused for breath, he had jabbed Republican Dan Lungren for opposing legal abortion, criticized his enforcement of the state's assault weapon ban and questioned his commitment to protecting the environment, improving the public schools and fighting the tobacco industry.

It may not have been subtle. But so far it has been a winning hand for Davis. In a year that's tilting toward the GOP nationwide, Davis has built a steady lead that ranges from 6 to 8 percentage points in public polls to double that in his own surveys. And he has done so in a way that ought to turn heads among the next class of presidential candidates in both parties.

Lungren's problem is straightforward: Davis is controlling the center and marginalizing the Republican as too conservative for most California voters. That's allowing Davis to hold down defection among moderate Democrats (especially men) and run up a lead among independents (especially women). In a state so closely divided between the parties, that's a formula for victory.

It's also the formula Bill Clinton used to crush Bob Dole in the presidential race here two years ago. Even more important, Davis is doing it with five of the same weapons that Clinton relied on: abortion, guns, the environment, education and tobacco. "Davis has basically taken a page out of the playbook of the 1996 presidential campaign," says Mark Baldassare, survey director for the independent Public Policy Institute of California. "He has had Lungren on the defensive since day one."

That's ominous news for Republicans looking toward 2000. The odds are high that the next Republican presidential nominee will hold many of the same positions that Davis is using so effectively against Lungren. (Tobacco might not be a problem again, but the Republican presidential primaries still strongly favor a candidate who takes conservative stands on gun control, abortion, the environment and the federal role in public education.) No race precisely predicts another, but if Lungren can't overcome this assault, it's reasonable to question whether any Republican presidential nominee with those views can retake California in 2000 without help from an economic downturn.

The problem isn't only California. More than any others, three states mark the turn from the Republican "presidential lock" of the 1970s and 1980s to the nascent Clinton electoral college majority of the 1990s. California, New Jersey and Illinois are socially moderate, heavily suburbanized large states that voted Republican in all six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988; but Clinton carried each of them twice, the last time by huge margins.

Paradoxically, while these states have moved toward Clinton, they've all elected Republican governors. Yet Pete Wilson in California, Jim Edgar in Illinois and Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey are all fiscal conservatives who support legalized abortion and most gun control. That mix has allowed them to hold the suburban center--something that George Bush and Dole couldn't do against Clinton's own centrist appeal.

Social conservatives are poised for breakthroughs this year in Illinois, but in races that may not predict much about 2000. Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who opposes abortion, leads Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. But Moseley-Braun has been so discredited by scandal that Fitzgerald's views have been almost irrelevant. Republican George Ryan, who also opposes abortion, leads in the gubernatorial contest, but abortion hasn't been an issue because the Democrats improbably produced an antiabortion nominee as well. Likewise, the California Senate race isn't a perfect proxy because Republican Matt Fong supports legalized abortion--which has complicated Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's efforts to marginalize him (mostly on guns).

But the California governor's race does re-create the ideological contrast that has shaped the last two presidential campaigns. And it shows how that new alignment is changing the nature of combat in these suburban battlefields.

In the 1980s, Republicans dominated state and national politics in California with wedge issues such as crime and welfare that resonated most powerfully with men. But, like Clinton, Davis has moved to the center (most significantly, he supports the death penalty and has not proposed new taxes) in a way that has blunted those attacks. It's a measure of Davis' success that Lungren has spent weeks trying to resurrect decades-old fights about Jerry Brown, Proposition 13 and even the medfly--an issue as relevant to most Californians as whether the Missouri Compromise line should have been extended through the state when it joined the Union.

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