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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR

Candidates' Mission: Solidifying Images

Lungren and Davis unveil TV ads as the campaign begins in earnest. Their approaches are as different as their styles.

September 13, 1998|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With just seven weeks to go until the November election, the two men dueling over the California governorship have begun selling themselves in earnest, releasing television ads that lay a foundation for their mushrooming campaigns.

The commercials, running in large and small markets from San Diego to Eureka, share a goal: to plant the candidates' names in voters' minds and begin to shape perceptions.

The 30-second spots reflect approaches as different as the candidates' styles.

Lungren's ads are mostly about image, about giving voters a warm feeling and sense of respect for the Republican who has served two terms as state attorney general.

Davis' commercial, by contrast, is meant to be informational. It takes a single issue--education--and lets the Democratic lieutenant governor rattle off a list of specific fixes for California's struggling public schools.

Analysts say Lungren and Davis are pursuing a predictable objective at this stage in the campaign.

"People may have a casual awareness of these guys, but they really aren't acquainted with them in any fundamental way," said Republican media consultant Don Sipple. Introducing themselves is the candidates' job at this point, he said. "These aren't rock 'em, sock 'em ads."

But some strategists say Lungren--whose ads make no mention of what he might do as governor--should be doing a bit more rocking and socking. Trailing Davis by as many as 12 points in the polls, Lungren needs to be "moving the game forward and giving voters something concrete," said Dee Dee Meyers, former press secretary to President Clinton.

"He's very late, chronologically and thematically," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. "He was quiet [on TV] all summer and now he's spending an awful lot of time introducing himself."

Privately, some Republicans express similar views. But Dan Schnur, a GOP media strategist advising the Lungren team, disagreed. He said it's important for Lungren to "establish his positives" early on--to inoculate himself against the slams that are liable to come from future Davis spots.

"If the opposition says something bad about your candidate and you haven't protected your candidate by telling the voters good things about him, it's much more difficult to withstand the attack," Schnur said.

Moreover, he noted, "These ads are part of a set. There's more to come."

The spots were released Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign. Previously, both candidates were airing commercials only in limited areas populated by large numbers of crucial, undecided voters.

With summer over, campaign gurus presume Californians are beginning to pay at least a little attention to the race to succeed Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. The parade of ads is likely to thicken as the weeks pass, ultimately shifting into "comparative"--or attack--mode as election day nears.

One wild card is whether the TV blitz can pierce the haze of Monicagate. Will voters deluged with news, polls and talk show chatter about the president's sexual escapades pause to reflect on a couple of guys named Dan and Gray?

Lungren, for one, is trying to exploit the scandal by touting his strong moral fiber in his TV spots. In one ad, which carries the not-so-subtle title "Character," the GOP nominee says, "Character is doing what's right when no one is looking." The ad closes with the cliched but pointed slogan: "Dan Lungren: a governor we can trust."

The reference to Clinton is obvious, and at a news conference last week, Lungren took pains to point out that the tarnished president has campaigned for Davis. But since character has not yet become an issue in the race, it's unclear whether Lungren's tactic will bruise.

The attorney general's two newer ads include one titled "Crime Fighter," which highlights his law enforcement credentials, and another called "Native Son," which notes his California roots.

The crime ad aims to remind voters of Lungren's tough stance on criminal sentencing and the death penalty. But with crime down in California--a drop for which Lungren repeatedly has taken credit--it is questionable whether the issue will be pivotal for voters.

Moreover, since Davis is also a death penalty supporter, there is little for Lungren to gain by hammering on that theme, some strategists say.

The "Native Son" ad describes Lungren as a lifelong Californian, "loving husband and father." It presents a rapid collage of images, including two shots that borrow from former President Ronald Reagan's timeless popularity. In one, Lungren rides a galloping horse; another shows him standing beside the Gipper.

The Davis ad, titled "Symbol," depicts the candidate in a classroom with children and teachers, sitting at a computer and talking to the camera.

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