Ugly time out West Newswatch...on politics today


LOS ANGELES -- In their televised debate the other night, Republican gubernatorial nominee Sen. Pete Wilson sent sparks flying when he accused Democratic nominee Dianne Feinstein of being the tool of state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and state Senate President David Roberti.

Feinstein has joined Brown and Roberti in opposing two ballot initiatives that would slap term limitations on all members of the state legislature, and they are strongly behind her candidacy. Wilson used the debate to announce his support for the more stringent of the two propositions, one that would also junk the legislature's generous retirement program.

Referring to the two influential Democratic legislative leaders, Wilson fired at Feinstein: "I don't owe Willie. I do not owe David." Feinstein shot back: "If you really feel you can't handle Willie Brown or David Roberti, then stay in Washington."

The exchange focused on a critical aspect of the Nov. 6 governor's race -- which of the two candidates can bring change to a government in Sacramento that, like Washington, functions under shadows of budgetary gridlock and scandal.

Both candidates are offering themselves as outsider "clean brooms," though both have important ties to Sacramento insiders. Wilson seeks to replace another Republican, two-term Gov. George Deukmejian, and is the favorite of big-money interests. Brown has been one of Feinstein's staunchest supporters from the early days when she trailed state Attorney General Van De Kamp badly in the Democratic primary.

A distinguishing feature of this year's gubernatorial election has been the important role ballot initiatives have played in it. Van De Kamp built his losing primary campaign around a series of them, including the term-limitation proposal that infuriated the legislators, and the ambitious environmental protection plan known as "Big Green."

"Big Green" had looked like a sure winner but is being fought vigorously by the chemical and oil interests who support Wilson, who in turn opposes the initiative as too costly. Feinstein has come out for it and is running a joint ad with its sponsors, but "Big Green" may not be the ticket to election it once appeared to be.

Instead, the term-limitation initiatives have tapped into the widespread public frustration toward all elected officials, and those in Sacramento especially, and these proposals could play a bigger role in the gubernatorial race. Wilson obviously hopes so, what with both initiatives being backed by voters by 2-to-1 in the major polls here.

As the campaign moves into its final weeks, each candidate is seeking to undermine the other's claim to be a new engine of change.

In response to a debate question about whether Feinstein had tried too hard to "micro-manage" as mayor of San Francisco, Wilson said: "Mrs. Feinstein, whether she micro-managed or macro-managed, did not manage well." He has accused her of leaving the city with a deficit, which she denies.

Feinstein painted Wilson as an ineffective, absentee senator, charging he has had the third-worst attendance record this year, failing to vote on the confirmation of David Souter to the Supreme Court and staying in California during all the critical budget negotiations in Washington. Wilson replied rather lamely in the debate that he had advised President Bush and his negotiators of the positions he favored to protect California's interests.

Voters, however, seldom make their decision on a campaigning officeholder based on his absenteeism from his job. The Feinstein campaign obviously hopes Wilson will be a casualty in this year of a possible anti-incumbent, anti-Washington revolt.

The debate, in which neither cautious candidate scored heavily against the other, underscored the closeness of the race, rated as even in most polls now. The campaign will be fought and probably decided over the airwaves in the final weeks, with Feinstein raising enough money to be competitive in television ads against the well-heeled Wilson.

All long, the race has been viewed by many as a contest between substance -- the colorless but efficient Wilson -- and style -- the charismatic Feinstein who bills herself as "tough but caring." That faceoff so far has been inconclusive, so the prospect for the final weeks is a big-money exchange of negative commercials over which candidate is more indebted to which special interests -- yet another unedifying political exercise in a year of them.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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