Of the ads, by the ads, for the ads 'Open' Calif. primary makes grass-roots politics obsolete


LOS ANGELES -- And now from the land that gave the world Hollywood comes its near political equivalent, the virtual campaign.

Rubber-chicken dinners, stump speeches, hand shaking and baby kissing -- the rituals of traditional, grass-roots politics -- have been turned into irrelevant relics by the tenor of the primary race for governor of California.

With the election scheduled June 2, voters seldom hear or see any of the four key contenders for one of the nation's most important elective offices anywhere but in their paid advertisements.

This "TV-image campaign," as one observer called it, is poised to make history for the characteristic that eclipses all else in the race: the money that makes this type of campaign possible.

Two of the four main candidates are multimillionaires who are freely spending their own money -- perhaps as much as $50 million between the two of them just for the primary -- and their competitors are scrambling to raise enough money to keep some semblance of a pace.

As a result, the primary alone is destined to become the most expensive state election in the nation's history.

"This election has really become a test of how far can we go with television advertising and politics," said Mark Baldassare, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization that is conducting voter surveys about the race.

"Eighty percent of Californians say they they've seen TV ads and only 9 percent say they've closely followed news stories of the election. Do we want to elect our leaders based on television advertisement, pretty much devoid of news content or other sources of information? That's the way this seems to be turning out."

The stakes are as high as the campaign bills. California represents the world's seventh-largest economy, and it is the nation's most populous state, home to one in eight Americans. Its governor is automatically catapulted to national prominence.

Four major contenders are vying in an unusual open primary for the political throne being vacated by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who has held the office for two terms and is barred by law from seeking a third.

The three moderate Democrats seeking their party's nomination -- a millionaire and first-time political candidate; a wealthy congresswoman and former corporate lawyer; and the state's lieutenant governor, who has spent his career in politics -- are in an unpredictable race, in which the lead trades places with each new poll. Because they are taking indistinguishable stands on the issues (all endorse abortion rights, the death penalty and improving California's public schools), the race is not about the issues.

Al Checchi, 49, a seasoned businessman and political neophyte, single-handedly has made money the dominant campaign issue. His campaign spending is estimated to approach $30 million.

Jane Harman, 52, is a three-term congresswoman from the Los Angeles area, a member of President Jimmy Carter's administration and a former corporate lawyer. She is married to Sidney Harman, the owner of a Fortune 500 electronics company that bears his name, and her campaign estimates that she will spend between $10 million and $20 million in the primary.

Gray Davis, the state's 55-year-old lieutenant governor, has spent his career in politics, most notably as chief of staff for Jerry Brown when he was California's governor. Davis, who does not have personal wealth to tap, is known as an accomplished fund raiser. His campaign plans to raise upward of $9 million.

The Republican who is assured of a spot on the fall ballot is Dan Lungren, the state's attorney general, a former congressman from Long Beach and the son of President Richard Nixon's former physician. Lungren, 51, with a reputation as a straight arrow, is trying to keep the governor's office in Republican control, where it has been for the last 16 years.

All of the rules of the political game abruptly changed as the result of an initiative endorsed by California voters two years ago that opened the state's primary rules. This election marks the debut of the state's unusual "blanket" primary. Every voter will receive the same ballot, listing every contender from every party for every office, a system used only by three other states: Alaska, Louisiana and Washington. For the governor's race alone the ballot lists 17 candidates.

The importance of money became an unintended consequence of the blanket primary. In closed primary systems, Democratic candidates simply campaigned within their own party. But now candidates must get their message to all potential voters. As a result, for instance, Checchi has sent direct-mail ads to Republicans.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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