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Candidates Trudge On as Voters Tune Out

November 03, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

The major candidates for California governor struggled Saturday to rouse voters who have tuned out or grown turned off by months of ceaseless attacks, as the bitter contest hurtled into its final 48 hours.

Incumbent Democrat Gray Davis, the front-runner, had just a single event, a traditional get-out-the-vote rally at a Pittsburg union hall. "If you want to go forward, stick with the winning team in Sacramento," Davis told about 200 ironworkers, painters and machinists, who spent the morning knocking on doors, urging people to the polls. "If you want to go backwards, the other guy's your choice."

Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. covered more turf as he bid to make up ground, skipping up the coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey, then inland to San Jose and the Central Valley. "We only have to put up with Gray Davis for four days!" Simon shouted to roughly three dozen supporters at an airport rally in Santa Barbara. "Four more days," the crowd chanted.

Simon, who traveled with other candidates on the state GOP ticket, is seeking to buck history: It has been 60 years since a California governor was denied a second term.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
State politics -- Two stories in Sunday's California section incorrectly cited the last California election in which one party swept all the statewide offices. It last occurred in 1946.

Davis, a target in Republican races across the state, was trying to make history as well. The governor was hoping not just to win a second term on Tuesday, but also to lead Democrats to the first party sweep of statewide offices since 1950.

Whoever wins the governorship, he will have little in the way of a mandate, given a campaign focused more on tactics and innuendo than anything either man hopes to accomplish in office.

"After most elections, you've learned something about what voters think about taxes or crime or abortion or immigration," said Dan Schnur, a Republican communications strategist who sat out the governor's race. "In this campaign, the two most significant questions are whether Gray Davis has been a corrupt governor and whether Bill Simon has been a competent candidate."

Dispiriting as many find it, the race for governor will have important implications, not just in Sacramento -- where the next chief executive will immediately face a monstrous budget deficit -- but also in the 2004 presidential race, when California will figure heavily in both parties' calculations.

Despite tens of millions of dollars spent by the two leading candidates, the 2002 governor's race probably won't be the most expensive in state history; that contest, topping $118 million, was held four years ago. It likely will not even be the costliest this year; in the New York governor's race, three candidates, including a free-spending billionaire, will outpace California's.

But it may set a record for voter discontent. Many analysts forecast the lowest turnout in modern California history.

"I have never seen, in the 30 years I've been watching, a greater dissatisfaction with the electoral process," said Bruce Cain, an analyst at UC Berkeley's Institute for Governmental Studies. "The emphasis on character assassination as the primary focus of the campaign has really bothered people and driven them up the wall."

Of course, negative campaigning is hardly new. In fact, it is standard practice for incumbents like Davis with low popularity ratings and whose best chance to win, in the words of Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, is "by beating the daylights out of the alternative."

Having succeeded in tarnishing Simon, Davis has lately devoted himself to rallying his party's base, an effort that continued with Saturday's union rally in Pittsburg.

With the sleeves of his blue dress shirt rolled up, Davis touted his record on union issues and promised to do more for organized labor in a second term. "This is not about me," Davis told the workers, gathered in a parking lot wedged between warehouses and lumberyards in an industrial neighborhood. "I'm just the vehicle for your hopes and aspirations."

He asked labor members to volunteer for at least one more shift of precinct walking -- and encouraged them to do three or four. "You can sleep in all day Wednesday," the governor joked. "I'll sign a note." After the rally, Davis spent about 40 minutes talking to people in a nearby working-class neighborhood, urging them to vote.

At one house, Davis gave the family a leaflet touting union measures he had signed into law. "All these things we did here, he's against," Davis said of Simon as he pointed to the flier.

Among the verities proved once more this election season is the difficulty faced by first-time candidates running atop the ticket in California. Simon's frequent campaign stumbles point up a lesson previously learned by wealthy businessmen Michael Huffington, Al Checchi, William Matson Roth and Norton Simon, among others, that "political experience counts," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. "Political instincts are important."

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