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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR

Race Takes On New Rancor in Final Weeks

Davis accuses Lungren of helping keep illegal assault weapons on the street; he countercharges that opponent broke promise about holding another debate.

October 21, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER and DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With election day a spare 14 days away, the two major candidates for governor escalated their conflict Tuesday, with Democrat Gray Davis asserting that Republican Dan Lungren had "aided and abetted the enemy" in his handling of the state's assault weapons law, and Lungren accusing Davis anew of breaking his vow to hold a fifth debate.

In San Francisco and again in Riverside, Davis issued one of his sharpest attacks in the campaign--and one aimed at the heart of Lungren's self-definition as a crime fighter--when he ripped the attorney general's enforcement of the assault weapons ban.

"He has been more than AWOL; he has aided and abetted the enemy by putting 16,000 weapons on the street after the legal deadline," Lt. Gov. Davis charged during a news conference at the Mission district police station in San Francisco.

The Democrat repeated his contention that Lungren's failure to enforce a deadline for registering assault weapons left thousands of unaccountable guns on the street, at least 25 of which were used in crimes.

Lungren campaign aides countered that the state attorney general is defending the assault weapons ban in court, and they boasted about his record in cracking down on criminals armed with guns. "Atty. Gen. Lungren and the California Department of Justice are responsible for seizing more than 18,000 firearms from criminals," said Lungren campaign spokesman Bob Brown.

Additionally, Brown said, background checks performed on prospective gun buyers during Lungren's tenure have denied weapons to more than 35,000 people.

"Unless he apprehended a criminal last night, Gray Davis has done nothing to remove weapons from the streets."

The contentiousness between the two flared as the race marched toward a close with little change in the dynamics: Davis, holding a slim but consistent lead, talked of what he would do "when" he is governor, and Lungren lamented difficulties in getting his message out.

The exchange over guns underscored Lungren's difficulties in boosting his standing, even on Republican issues like crime. Just last weekend in the Imperial Valley, Lungren touted his early support for the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and background checks before handguns can be purchased.

On Tuesday, however, it was Davis who received the endorsement of Washington gun control advocate Sarah Brady and her husband, Jim, the former Reagan administration press secretary whose name is on the bill Lungren supported. Brady was grievously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Lungren's gibe at Davis' refusal to hold another debate followed an opposition stunt designed to embarrass the Republican during his appearance Tuesday before Latino business leaders in Los Angeles.

As Lungren was taking questions from the leaders, a young man rose and offered a mock presentation of a picture of Lungren with Gov. Pete Wilson, who has not been a popular figure in the Latino community, particularly since his support of Proposition 187, the measure that stripped state benefits for illegal immigrants.

"You two have done more to unify Hispanic voters in this city than anyone else," he yelled, adding that he was walking precincts for the Democratic Party. "It's the Democratic Party that's coming to replace 187 and Pete Wilson's attack dog."

Lungren shook his hand, and quietly asked him to "have your press availability a little bit later."

The young man was escorted out, and as he left Lungren characterized his presence as a "cheap political trick" engineered by Davis. He offered no information to back up that claim, however.

"Where I came from, when you gave somebody your word, you kept it," said Lungren, referring to an earlier agreement between the campaigns to hold five debates, that last of which was to be held in Los Angeles.

"Instead of coming and debating me, he has cheap political tricks like this where he sends people to show up and do that."

Davis' campaign insisted that it would not debate after Oct. 15, saying that any later date would cut into the last weeks of campaigning. The last debate, in San Francisco, took place that night, and negotiations for another session have fizzled.

Davis tersely brushed off the criticism from Lungren.

"He is just a desperate candidate," Davis said. ". . . No two candidates have spent more time together than Dan and I. While he's a fine fellow, I've got to get out and meet some people."

Lungren, while a clear underdog in the governor's race, strongly appealed for support from Latino voters Tuesday, saying that they share his and the Republican Party's views. He sharply disputed a reporter's question that suggested he has a great deal of ground to make up among Latinos because of Wilson's legacy of bruised feelings.

"If you are born and raised Catholic in Southern California, Latinos and Latinas are not some people that you've never met before," Lungren said. "You go to school with them, you play football with them, you're in class with them, they're your friends. It's not something foreign."

Lungren pointed to his marshaling of votes, while in Congress, for the immigration reform bill that he said offered citizenship to 1 million California voters--"the most generous immigration legalization program in the history of modern civilization," he said.

Profiles of Gray Davis and Dan Lungren, with video clips from their debates, are on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/elect98.

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