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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR

Democrats Seek More Than a Davis Win

Growing confidence leads to hope that candidate's momentum will carry over to down-ticket offices. But such sweeps are unusual in state.

October 29, 1998|DAVE LESHER and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The food was sumptuous, the liquor flowed and the crowd was thick with beautiful people when Gray Davis came to downtown Los Angeles this week to rally the Democratic faithful.

Were it not late October, the elegant scene at the Westin Bonaventure, with its heady air of confidence, could easily have been mistaken for an election night celebration. But the gubernatorial front-runner was taking nothing for granted.

"I'll do my part," Davis pledged. "I need you to e-mail, talk to, buttonhole, phone, fax, guilt-trip . . . every human being you know to make sure that we have a turnout that matters."

It was more than Davis' ever-abundant caution.

"I need to get out as many votes as possible so that the entire ticket can win," the lieutenant governor told the celebrity-salted crowd. "Not just governor, but the entire ticket."

With Democrats increasingly confident of winning the governorship for the first time in 16 years, they have started to set more ambitious sights for Tuesday, hoping a big Davis win over Republican Dan Lungren could sweep in other statewide candidates and solidify the party's grip on the two legislative houses in Sacramento.

And why not? In recent weeks, polls have shown Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer moving ahead of her Republican rival, Matt Fong. And the latest Los Angeles Times poll showed Democrats leading in all but one of the seven down-ticket races statewide, for such offices as lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer. Today, Republicans hold four of those seven offices.

Five days before the election, it is impossible to say whether Davis is growing coattails or simply riding a Democratic wave along with everyone else on the party ticket. Regardless, Democrats are doing all they can to fit the party front-runner with something--coattails, extra wide lapels--that his ticket mates can hitch onto.

On Wednesday, Davis and Boxer stumped together in San Francisco--along with fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein--firing away on gun control, a central issue in both the Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.

"I want to stand here with my colleagues . . . to urge you to elect people who will represent your side," Davis said, promising to sign legislation imposing a tougher crackdown on assault-type weapons.

His campaign coffers filled to bursting, Davis recently diverted $1.5 million--on top of an earlier $2-million contribution--to the state Democratic Party to help boost other candidates. Davis also is paying for extensive Spanish-language advertising featuring Davis with Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

A Davis-Bustamante win would mark the first time California has had a same-party governor-lieutenant governor tandem in nearly 20 years.

But there is more at stake than mere political bragging rights.

For Davis--or Lungren, for that matter--a party sweep would be especially crucial for education reform--which is voters' uppermost concern, since the governor wields only partial control over the nation's largest public school system.

With fellow Democrat Delaine Eastin reelected as state superintendent of public instruction, a Gov. Davis would have much more success at turning education policy into reality.

With Republican Gloria Matta Tuchman as superintendent, however, Davis might encounter many roadblocks--just as Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has struggled mightily with Eastin for the past four years. (The same might be true with a Lungren-Eastin combination.)

At this point, however, Republicans in California are struggling merely to hold their ground.

The party's leaders--and Lungren--insist that the governor's race is still highly competitive, and they are calling on their rank-and-file to redouble efforts in a final push for an upset victory. The Lungren campaign is well-funded, they say, and they expected to pull in an additional $1 million at a Wednesday night Orange County fund-raiser featuring Wilson.

"It's very interesting to follow the polls," Lungren told reporters during a stop Tuesday at a San Jose industrial plant. "The only poll I care about's the one on election day. . . . You ought to start writing your headline: 'Lungren--biggest comeback since Harry Truman.' "

But behind the scenes, strategic calculations being made these final days are at least partly aimed at cutting the GOP's losses. Republicans who once hoped to win back control of the state Assembly now call it a longshot. Both parties agree that Democratic control of the state Senate is not threatened.

The state party, meantime, recently launched new commercials in the Central Valley, home of the archetypal California swing voter, to win back Republicans who appear to have strayed to Davis' column.

And crowds have been so small for Lungren, the campaign canceled a series of rallies scheduled for Sunday, for fear of further embarrassment. A so-called "fly-around" featuring Lungren and the balance of the GOP ticket has been trimmed from two days to just one, now set for Monday.

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