California gubernatorial candidate tries turning the other cheek


LOS ANGELES -- In the three-way race for the June 2 Democratic gubernatorial primary here, negative television advertising has emerged as the make-or-break strategy -- but for only two of the three candidates. The third is bucking the conventional wisdom that says failing to respond in kind is a sure ticket to defeat.

Wealthy former Northwest Airlines executive Al Checchi, pouring record-breaking $30 million into hard-hitting ads against Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, has baited Mr. Davis into hitting back with negative ads of his own. But Ms. Harman so far is sticking to a positive message -- with damaging consequences so far.

It is a high-stakes gamble on her part. Ever since the George Bush campaign buried Michael Dukakis in 1988 with charges that he was an unpatriotic coddler of a convicted murderer, the accepted definition of a candidate who doesn't hit back is: Loser.

That script may be playing out here, where the little-known Ms. Harman after a late entry into the race jumped into the lead among the Democrats in the Field Poll, with a rush of positive television ads introducing her to statewide voters as an upbeat do-gooder. In early April she had 24 percent to 22 for Mr. Checchi and only 13 for Mr. Davis.

But Mr. Checchi unleashed a barrage of ads charging her with voting to cut Social Security, raise taxes on Social Security benefits and other anti-Democratic deeds, sending her poll numbers plunging. The latest Field Poll dropped her to third place, with only 11 percent of 649 likely voters, but the chief beneficiary was Mr. Davis, who went up to 19, not Mr. Checchi, who himself dropped to 17.

The principal strategic decision as a result has been for Mr. Checchi to turn his multimillionaire's resources against Mr. Davis in ads accusing him of trading "cash for favors" during his 23-year career as a California elected official. Mr. Davis, unlike Ms. Harman, is hitting back.

"I've run a positive campaign but I can't let some newcomer distort my record," Mr. Davis says. "I can't and I won't." One Davis television ad accuses Mr. Checchi of "slinging mud" and takes out after his record at Northwest. It calls him "a man who fired 4,000 people, forced thousands to take pay cuts while paying himself $10 million a year, a man who killed kindergarten legislation to save a tax break for his airline."

The Los Angeles Times reported that in 1995, Northwest defeated a proposal in Minnesota to end the property tax exemption for airport users whose proceeds were earmarked for day-long kindergarten classes for needy children.

While Mr. Checchi and Mr. Davis are exchanging fire, Ms. Harman has been standing aside. Her only television response to Mr. Checchi's charges against her has been an ad quoting California newspapers calling them "false" and "misleading." Her says, "Mr. Checchi can waste his money attacking me. I'll spend my time on real problems -- schools, crime, the economy and protecting seniors who have worked hard for their families, like my 87-year-old father."

Her turn-the-other-cheek strategy is more calculated than naive, according to Kam Kuwata, her campaign manager. He notes that Mr. Davis, not Mr. Checchi, benefited when she was attacked, and says she could turn out to be the beneficiary now that Mr. Checchi has focused on Mr. Davis, and Mr. Davis is striking back.

Mr. Kuwata acknowledges that Ms. Harman not responding in kind to Mr. Checchi runs against the conventional wisdom. "You can go against conventional wisdom," he says, "if one of your opponents is the equivalent of your hit man." Under this reasoning, Ms. Harman has not one but two "hit men" doing the negative campaigning for her.

If their slugging doesn't redound to Ms. Harman's advantage, Mr. Kuwata says, the gloves-on strategy may have to be reconsidered, although the candidate herself is not so inclined.

The June 2 primary is California's first experiment with a "blanket" primary format. Democratic and Republican contenders -- 17 of them in all, mostly long shots -- will appear on a single ballot and the top vote-getting Democrat and Republican will face each other in the fall election.

Republican state Attorney General Dan Lungren, with no serious opposition, is the overall front-runner, with 27 percent in the latest Field Poll. But matchups with the three major Democratic contenders show him trailing Mr. Davis while leading the other two. The Democratic combat between Mr. Checchi and Mr. Davis may not benefit Ms. Harman, but it won't hurt Mr. Lungren in November.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's TC Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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