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Schism in California GOP Likely to Hurt Party at Polls

October 31, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

There are two political parties in California with dramatically different views: One strongly opposes the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton and another supports it, and one backs Democrats Gray Davis and Barbara Boxer far more than the other.

But the split is not the traditional one between Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it is the striking gulf between conservative and moderate Republicans.

Theirs is two parties in one these days, going in distinctly different directions, a political yin and yang stretching their fragile connections.

The defection of moderate Republicans is one of the major reasons why both gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren and Senate candidate Matt Fong are lagging behind their opponents, and why Democrats are daring to dream of a near-sweep on election day.

California Republicans are suffering from the ailment that afflicted the national Democratic Party before Clinton--so wracked by internal dissent that it diminishes its own chances for success. Putting the best face on it, some Republicans say that the split is a spoil of success.

"Losing is actually much better for developing internal cohesiveness than winning," said one Republican strategist who, like others interviewed, insisted on anonymity. "When you lose four straight elections for governor [as state Democrats have], you get desperate enough to put your differences aside. When you've been winning awhile, you tend to get complacent and the minor splits become major ones."

The conservative-moderate split among Republicans is not new. For years, it has been bridged by the success of Gov. Pete Wilson, who attracted both sides of the party in winning four elections. And nationally, the party's wings have frequently fought during presidential contests.

But by next Wednesday morning, at least in California, success may be a distant memory. If Davis and Boxer maintain their comfortable preelection leads in the polls, it would mean that Wilson is the only Republican since 1987 to have won a senate or gubernatorial race. Democrats will have won five big-ticket contests in that time span, against five different Republican candidates.

In the activist ranks and even among voters, self-described conservatives outnumber moderate Republicans; only 27% of likely Republican voters questioned in a recent Times poll described themselves as moderates. But with Democratic registration running ahead of the GOP by a 47%-36% margin statewide, the potential estrangement of nearly 3 in 10 Republican voters is problematic.

This year's migration of Republican moderates is part of a larger shift worrisome to party leaders. With few exceptions, statewide Democrats are attracting strong backing from independent and moderate voters and women--the very groups that dictate success in California.

In part, the losses are the result of the strong social conservatism imbued in GOP leaders like House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"When you go home at night and see people on the air with a harsh, rigid, intolerant point of view, that is not culturally compatible with California," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "It is . . . pushing away their own Republican moderate voters in California."

The Democrats' own journey through the wilderness ended in 1992 when Bill Clinton, spurning the party's liberal power barons in Congress, ran between them and Republican George Bush to capture the presidency.

Clinton emphasized issues that told voters he was not the traditional liberal they had spurned in most recent presidential elections. In the same way, successful California Democrats have moved to the center--so much so that if he had been running his 1990 gubernatorial campaign this year, Wilson would have in some ways been more liberal than the Democrats.

"The Democrats have been, for the last decade or so, pro-choice, pro-death penalty, pro-balanced budget, tough--on the environment and on guns--candidates," said Roy Behr, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles.

The issue of abortion has played a strong role in defining candidates for moderate Republicans, as well as independent voters and women.

Increasingly, political analysts say, support for abortion rights is viewed by moderate voters as a symbol of tolerance--a trait they find essential if they are to vote for a conservative. Wilson's essentially pro-choice stance on abortion helped attract moderates and women in each of his four successful statewide campaigns.

Although Lungren opposes abortion, many believe that he could have offset the liability had he broadened his rhetoric and emphasized education, children's issues, health care and the environment.

"His mistake has been talking about crime endlessly," said one Republican consultant, expressing a common view.

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