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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Avoiding the Real Issues Will Only Hurt Candidates

September 17, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON and SACRAMENTO

Here is a thought for the two men running for governor: Stipulate to some stuff, then get on with talking about important things.

Stipulate, for example, that:

* Lt. Gov. Gray Davis supports abortion rights and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren does not. That's important, but there's a limit to how many times we need to hear it.

* Both candidates support the death penalty. Quit the quibbling over who's the most eager executioner.

* Three decades ago Davis fought in Vietnam and Lungren never wore a uniform. And two decades ago Davis carried water for--horrors!--Gov. Jerry Brown. That's ancient history.

* Both are men of reasonably good character. Sure, you can find flaws: Davis has been known to berate advisors; Lungren tends to ignore advisors. But both seem to be honest, loyal and--FYI--good husbands.

All that said, they also should stipulate that California faces many real problems, most of them related to growth--transportation, water, school facilities, pollution, prisons. . . . And voters might like to know how somebody who aspires to be governor plans to relieve these severe growing pains.

*

Lungren told reporters last week that "since there is no huge issue" this election year, he thinks voters will select the next governor based on "character."

Wrong, says pollster Mark Baldassare of the independent Public Policy Institute of California. "Voters seem to look upon any character-related pitch with great suspicion for the simple reason that they are conditioned to view politicians as ethically challenged," Baldassare asserts.

"Voters seem to be saying, 'Don't brag about your sterling character. Just tell me what you plan to do.' "

Baldassare this week released a statewide poll showing that what matters most to voters, by far, are issues. (The poll also showed Democrat Davis leading Republican Lungren by 47% to 38%.)

Asked which is most important in deciding whom to vote for, 61% of those surveyed replied "the candidates' stands on the issues." Only 18% said "character," followed by experience, 14%, and political party, 5%.

Personally, I'm skeptical of these lopsided responses. I agree with veteran GOP political consultant Sal Russo, who contended: "That's a political correctness answer. People also will tell you they don't like negative ads. But we know that negative ads normally work."

Regardless, it is politically important to campaign on issues. Complex subjects--especially involving infrastructure, a horrible word--tend to be eye-glazing. So candidates are inclined to avoid them. But even if most voters barely listen, they do pick up an important drift: A candidate is substantive, has a vision and is serious about leading the state into a better future. And this, in the end, is part of character.

"Maybe the Ronald Reagan years colored me," says Russo, a former Reagan aide, "but I think candidates need to speak from their heart and address issues they believe are important--and get out of the business of pandering to the latest poll results. It doesn't matter whether 90% or 2% of the people think the issue is important. You can define your candidacy as trying to solve real problems."

*

Voters think crime and education are "the most serious problems" facing California, Baldassare found. Nothing else is close. That's hardly news to the candidates. Lungren is running a TV ad about crime; ditto Davis about education.

But the pollster also asked some separate infrastructure questions and detected deep concern about highways and water; 70% believe their local roads will be inadequate within 10 years and 53% feel the same about water supply.

Recently the California Business Roundtable--composed of major corporate CEOs--released a report outlining $90.5 billion in infrastructure needs over the next 10 years. The state is about $58 billion short of having enough money, it figured. Part of the solution is a $9.2-billion school bond issue, which includes construction financing reforms and is on the November ballot. The organization also recommended raising the state debt limit and dedicating a quarter-cent of the sales tax for pay-as-you-go construction financing.

But this kind of yawner doesn't get debated on the campaign trail, let alone in TV ads. To his credit, however, Lungren did mention in one debate that the gas tax may have to be raised to pay for highways. And he'll talk in detail about water--if asked.

R. William Hauck, president of the Business Roundtable and a veteran Capitol wonk, concedes he's disappointed in the candidates. "I'm hopeful both will begin to talk more about their own views of the challenges facing California," he says.

Just a thought. But don't hold your breath.

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