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  •   Two Californians Fight for the Middle

    By William Booth
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, August 2, 1998; Page A02

    SAN DIEGO—The California governor's race got off to its earliest start ever as Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren sparred in their first debate Friday night over who truly represents the mainstream of the nation's most populous state.

    The debate foreshadowed a likely long, close and classic contest between two lifelong politicians who represent their parties' differing ideologies, but who also must appear broad enough to get votes from the large and uncommitted middle that swings elections in California.

    This attempt to expand the base led to several odd encounters. In one, the two men bickered over who had been to Mexico more often, an appeal not only to the state's growing Latino population, but also a bow to the importance of Mexico as a trading partner with California.

    In another exchange, Lungren, the state's top law enforcement official, asserted that Davis was a lukewarm supporter of the death penalty, which most Californians support. Davis countered that he firmly believes in execution, and then said he admired the no-nonsense approach of Singapore, where a U.S. teenager was punished with a cane several years ago for vandalism.

    "I think Singapore is a good starting point, in terms of law and order," Davis said, adding the state can't punish criminals enough.

    In a preview of their strategies, each sought to portray the other as out of touch, the captive of extreme – or weak – stances on the highly charged issues of abortion, assault weapons, capital punishment, and most important, according to voters, education.

    Davis told viewers of the televised one-hour debate that Lungren wanted to take "California in a direction it did not want to go," characterizing his opponent as a friend and ally of the far right, of arch-conservative former representative Robert K. Dornan, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and television evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

    Lungren said he would glady associate himself with California Republican governors such as Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, "if he'll stand with Jerry Brown."

    Lungren repeatedly needled Davis about his long service as chief of staff to then-Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., the shorthand in this state for a dreamy liberal.

    Recent surveys have put Davis ahead of Lungren, and, more troubling for the GOP, voters have told pollsters that after 16 years of Republican control of the governor's office, it might be time for a change.

    In one of the longest exchanges, during a period in which the candidates questioned each other, the two sparred over abortion, an emotional issue, but one over which the California governor has little control. Lungren, who has supported a ban on abortion, challenged Davis over his opposition to parental consent and his support of so-called late-term abortions, two elements of the abortion debate where most Californians support Lungren's positions.

    Davis retorted that "on the core issue, we are in fundamental disagreement. I trust a woman who, in concert with her own God, her own doctor and her own conscience, comes to a decision on the most personal and delicate thing that involves a woman's health. You don't trust a woman to make that decision, you want the government to make it for her."

    In Friday's debate, the styles of the two party leaders were clearly etched. Davis, a cautious politician and skilled fund-raiser, was more often on the defensive, and he seemed to dance around several direct questions. Lungren was more blunt, though he too was capable of shading the truth of his record.

    Asked by Lungren if he would pledge not to air negative ads, Davis gave a technical answer, saying that each campaign should provide the other with the attack ad 24 hours before airing the charges.

    Asked why he appeared not to support the death penalty on two occasions, Davis said he did not recall his votes and would have to respond later.

    Asked why he was neutral on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Davis, who has the solid support of labor, said, "Well, NAFTA is already the law of the land. I don't know what it profits a lot of us to go back and say, 'Where were you on something that took place five years ago?' "

    This statute of limitations, however, did not stop Davis from attacking Lungren for his votes while in the Congress in the 1980s against expenditures for popular programs such as Head Start.

    Lungren replied that he was a part of the Reagan revolution's attempt to "devolve" the powers and spending at the federal level and return control and money to the states.

    Lungren then sounded a theme his advisers say will be a centerpiece of his campaign: that he is leader who acts, not talks. "Yes, it's tough to make controversial, tough decisions," Lungren said about his role in Reagan years. "I'm willing to do that. That's what it takes to be a successful governor, not to pander all the time."

    On the issue that most Californians, enjoying an economic recovery, say they care most about – education – both candidates pledged to return the state's schools to their former glory. California schools, once among the nation's best, are now running at the back of the pack. Both men pushed for more testing and higher standards for teachers. Neither talked about money. Lungren suggested school vouchers – though he did not use the term – while Davis said he would like to see more mentors and weekend schooling.

    It is early in the campaign, but both candidates are professionals with long public records and experience, and the first debate will probably be reprised over the coming months. For many voters, it probably is to early to tune in.

    "This was an off, off Broadway tour in the middle of the summer, on a Friday evening, in San Diego," said independent political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "I mean, this is probably off the radar screen. I don't know how it could have been more so. Well, I guess it could have been held in Fresno."

    Fresno is the site of the next debate.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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