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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Running for No. 2 Spot With No. 1 as the Goal

Lieutenant governor hopefuls are opposites in policy and persona but share an ambition.

October 13, 2006|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

It's no secret that state Sen. Tom McClintock and California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi believe their rightful title should be governor.

But they would be content to have it cluttered with "lieutenant" for at least the next four years.

Garamendi, a Sacramento-area Democrat, and McClintock, a Republican from Thousand Oaks, are running for lieutenant governor on the Nov. 7 ballot, in what might be the statewide election's closest race.

The position is often mocked for its limited clout but valued as a potential springboard to California's top job.

Ideological and stylistic opposites, with a mutual loner streak, McClintock and Garamendi have waged unsuccessful campaigns for governor in the past and haven't let defeat quell their hunger.

The road-worn Sacramento veterans insist they aren't scheming that far ahead.

But supporters say the candidates are convinced that winning the No. 2 post would give them another shot -- perhaps their last, best shot -- at the bigger prize.

"It puts Tom in training if he's going to be governor in 2010," said Shawn Steel, former Republican Party state chairman.

"There's no doubt John wants to be the governor," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

Polls showed that the 61-year-old Garamendi emerged from a bruising June primary -- he held off state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) -- with an edge over McClintock, who faced token opposition for the Republican nomination.

Garamendi's perceived advantages included a Democratic tilt in California's voter registration and the headlines that he earned in his rate-curbing battles with the insurance industry.

True to form, the rancher and former UC Berkeley football player also benefited from his well-preserved, athletic good looks, an easy and empathetic touch on the stump -- toothy grins for everyone -- and a list of legislative accomplishments that date to his years as an assemblyman and state Senate majority leader.

More early comfort came from the fact that Garamendi's positions in support of abortion rights, tougher gun control and broader environmental protections are in sync with the sentiments of the voting majority in California.

By contrast, McClintock occupies the minority ground on those passion-stirring issues and has a relatively thin record as a lawmaker.

But recent surveys had the November contest neck and neck. And trend-watchers say McClintock could be surfing in the wake of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who enjoys a wide lead over his challenger, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

"If I don't get it this time, I'll have to fire my pollster," McClintock said with a laugh.

*

McClintock, 50, is not known for jollity. The stiff, bookish and somewhat iconoclastic lover of tax-policy debates is the un-Garamendi. He is tall, like his opponent, but appears at times to shrink within himself, pinning his shoulders close to his ears when he speaks, in a reflex that can undercut the confidence in his voice.

First elected to the Assembly at age 26, McClintock finished a distant third in the 2003 gubernatorial recall.

That followed his two failed bids for state controller, in 1994 and 2002, the second one a squeaker. He also came up short in a 1992 campaign for Congress.

But the attention generated by the historic recall dramatically lifted McClintock's profile and made him a hero to his party's right wing.

He is a darling of conservative talk radio, with his erudite railings against government spending and illegal immigration.

And there is a sense that he has fashioned an image as a refreshingly unglamorous Mr. Straight Shooter, whose appeal transcends his philosophical base, intriguing independent voters who disdain everything slick and opaque in politics.

"He doesn't come off as a scary, arm-waving ideologue," said Democratic operative Garry South. "He seems honest, he's sincere, he's obviously very intelligent."

John Woolley, chairman of the political science department at UC Santa Barbara, agrees that McClintock has managed to accumulate stature without highlighting his less popular views.

"The McClintock situation is a very interesting one," he said. "Most people really don't know where he stands on those issues."

Then there's the dollar factor:

McClintock is finally persuading the Republican establishment to open its checkbooks for him, a first in his runs for state office.

His unbending opposition to what he considers government profligacy -- he has voted against all but a handful of state budgets in his two decades in the Legislature -- has frequently alienated party comrades.

So has his general aversion to compromise on goals he holds dear, such as stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants -- never mind Republican attempts, starting with the Bush administration, to embrace Latino voters more.

"I have been highly critical of George Bush for abandoning what I believe is his most fundamental responsibility as president, and that is to defend the integrity of our borders," he said.

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