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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Character Issue Takes the Stage, but Not From Expected Corner

September 24, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the end, Bill Clinton barely got a mention. One, to be precise. Republican Dan Lungren's campaign had strongly signaled that the president's misdeeds would dominate Wednesday's gubernatorial debate, but the Republican attorney general never mentioned the president's name. Democrat Gray Davis mentioned him once, in passing.

Yet Clinton, in some ways, dictated the course of the debate nonetheless. Davis, from his aggressive opening remarks to his concise closing jabs, precisely aped the pre-scandal Clinton as he seized the character issue on his own terms.

Exactly as Clinton did in 1992 debates and again in 1996, Davis refocused the character issue on, plain and simple, political issues. His own issues, as he defined them--abortion, assault weapons, oil drilling, tobacco.

He left Lungren utterly on the defensive, even on questions Lungren himself had posed to his rival.

And like Clinton--with George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996--Davis had the luck to be up against an opponent who seemed to find it difficult to maintain the sharp focus needed in a consequential event, which the debate was for Lungren.

In some ways, the debate was a metaphor for the governor's race to date:

Davis never passed up a chance to offer not only his position but an assault on Lungren's, thereby sharpening for viewers the differences between the two. On most questions, Davis pressed inexorably to his closing theme that Lungren represented a step back into the past, and Davis himself a leap into the future.

Lungren, in contrast, assaulted Davis outright in response to only one of the panelists' questions. Most of the time, he seemed less intent on defining his differences with Davis than with righting some insult to his personal integrity. And he frequently lapsed into bureaucratese, larding his comments with references to "plaintiffs' trial bar" and "H1B waivers," and an obscure--to voters--ballot proposition. He used up precious time in his closing statement detailing the nitty-gritty of binding arbitration, a discussion into which he inexplicably roped the coach-choking exploits of suspended Golden State Warrior basketball star Latrell Sprewell.

"Davis appeared to me to have his eye on the ball in a way that Lungren didn't," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.

"He came off as a little more relaxed, more in control, more steady," she added. "And he did not hide from the issue of character."

Indeed, Davis' opening fusillade on Lungren's character put the attorney general on the defensive from the get-go and denied him the high ground on the issue about which Lungren has spoken movingly in recent days.

After detailing Lungren votes against Head Start and school lunches, student loans and veterans programs, Davis asked with rhetorical flourish:

"What kind of moral authority can you claim?"

Lungren never directly responded, brushing off Davis' laundry list of negative votes with an obscure reference to a negative ad that Davis aired against Dianne Feinstein in their heated 1992 U.S. Senate primary.

Lungren was hamstrung in some ways by the debate panel's apparent decision not to ask questions about Clinton's travails. Lungren, going in, had assumed that the panelists would broach the subject for him, thereby sparing him the discomfort.

As Jeffe indicated, Davis also seemed more at ease, reflective of his campaign's contention that he is well ahead of Lungren--despite a recent Los Angeles Times poll that said the race is narrowing.

Although Davis' barbs were heated at times, he displayed a gentle touch at the microphone, softening one spat in which he and Lungren were battling over speaking rights by using an old Ronald Reagan line: "I paid for this mike," he said. Then he winked.

Lungren, who has spent much of the campaign styling himself in the image of the popular former president, got off a Reagan line himself, but it was hurried and tense. "There you go again, Gray," he said tersely.

He also came off darkly when he implied that Davis could not understand the importance of education--the most pressing issue of the campaign this year--because Davis does not have children.

As much as anything else, however, Lungren could be measured by what he didn't say. After focusing much of his campaign recently on Clinton's foibles, he did not mention the president. And after spending months decrying Davis' term as chief of staff to former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.--a suggestion meant to telegraph that Davis is a closet liberal--Lungren finally mentioned Brown.

But it was only a passing reference, not fully explained, and it came a long 47 minutes into the debate.

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