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Ueberroth's Low-Key Style May Hold Him Back

The former baseball commissioner fails to take advantage of a ballpark appearance to speak to a receptive audience in Fresno.

August 24, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — The gap between Peter V. Ueberroth's long-shot campaign for governor and the people who might be enticed to vote for him stretched Friday night from the manicured infield of Grizzlies Stadium to retired plumber Vincent Estrada's seat in Section 123.

A few minutes before Ueberroth was introduced as an honorary umpire, Estrada, a Democrat, said he recognized Ueberroth's name but didn't know his politics and planned to vote for Democrat Cruz Bustamante in the Oct. 7 recall election.

But Estrada's interest in Ueberroth picked up as he listened to an overview of the campaign: No negative ads or comments about other candidates or their issues, and an agenda limited to resolving the budget crisis, cutting fraud and waste, and creating jobs -- the last a resonant theme here in a county with 13% unemployment.

"I'd give him a chance," said Estrada, a 57-year-old grandfather. "I'm looking for fairness, and someone who hasn't been bought off by the unions or the corporations."

The problem, though, is Estrada never got to hear Ueberroth talk about what he would do as governor. Hours after Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger brought downtown Huntington Beach to a halt when he dropped by there, the brief appearance by Ueberroth -- former commissioner of major league baseball -- barely caused a murmur here in the battered heart of downtown Fresno.

A few fans recognized Ueberroth by sight; most applauded respectfully as he waved from the infield before the ceremonial first pitch, and a dozen or so people lined up to get autographs on balls (supplied by Ueberroth's handlers), game programs and the occasional hat. Then Ueberroth, the architect of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, disappeared to the owner's box to help celebrate a friend's birthday, leaving a stadium full of potential unrealized.

"I just haven't had a chance to hear what he has to say," said Sofia Cook, 41, a political independent who lined up for Ueberroth's autograph. "He needs to be more open, to be out there. To us, the working people, we need to know.... He has the charisma, the personality to be governor."

Charisma isn't a word usually associated with Ueberroth, who makes light of his own discomfort in front of the camera. Though he can be warm and engaging one-on-one, over the last week the Laguna Beach entrepreneur who once tried to buy the Anaheim Angels seemed most relaxed as he stood in the sweltering Central Valley sun talking baseball with Grizzlies Manager Fred Stanley.

But the battle for the governor's office will be won among people like those in the stands. In a race dominated by the recall issue itself and the Schwarzenegger and Bustamante campaigns, Ueberroth faces a difficult challenge in making himself politically relevant. And with Saturday's withdrawal by fellow Republican Bill Simon Jr., pressure probably will build on Ueberroth and state Sen. Tom McClintock to cede to Schwarzenegger, said Kevin Spillane, who has worked as a strategist for former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

"The business community [that Ueberroth] is gearing his campaign toward will want to make sure" that it unites behind one candidate who can win, Spillane said.

But Ueberroth campaign manager Dan Schnur said Saturday that Ueberroth had not been pressured to drop out, and he didn't expect Simon's withdrawal to lead to such calls.

"As the campaign progresses, Republicans are going to see California voters moving toward a candidate with a serious record as a problem-solver and crisis manager," Schnur said.

The campaign strategy from the beginning has been to start slow.

"We made a conscious decision at the outset to allow some of the other candidates to soak up the media attention early on," Schnur said. "Now that has subsided."

Still, with only about six weeks until the election, Ueberroth has not gained much traction with voters. A Los Angeles Times poll taken last week, before Simon bowed out, found that 7% of likely voters supported Ueberroth's candidacy, statistically in line with the 5% he received in a Field Poll taken after he announced Aug. 8 that he was running.

Yet about half of likely voters said they were either unaware of or had no opinion of Ueberroth, said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll. About 10% of Republicans backed him, compared with 6% of Democrats and 3% of independents. The sampling error for likely voters was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"There is room to grow because there is such a high 'don't know,' " Pinkus said. "It's kind of a blank slate, at this point."

Whereas the other candidates were viewed in sharply partisan terms by most voters, Ueberroth "has this kind of bipartisan profile," said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.

In poll results that were not released publicly, DiCamillo said, Ueberroth rated strongly when voters were asked their second choice.

"He's the kind of guy who would rise if the two leaders were to stumble," DiCamillo said, referring to Schwarzenegger and Bustamante.

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