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SAN DIEGO -- The woman introducing Lt. Gov. Gray Davis to this lunchtime audience of feminist lawyers says he is unlike some men, who vote right but then "retreat to their cigar-and-brandy male-bonding sessions." Mr. Davis, trying to become California's fourth Democratic governor in this century and the first since 1982, assures his listeners that in his 20s cigars were occasions of sin, but he has put away childish things.

He is determined to rise to the governorship on the steppingstones of his dead self, but today, he says, he will not stoop to delivering "a political speech in the classic sense." He is right, if by classic he is thinking of Pericles.

He does a hymn to diversity, heavy on chromosomal emphasis: "I like being around people who get things done and women get things done." And yet: "I have nothing against white males."

His brow bears laurels bestowed by teachers unions but he says public education has been "dumbed down," with California fourth-graders' reading proficiency surpassing only that of their peers in Mississippi and Louisiana. He says candor about this is embarrassing but he just can't help himself: "This is the way I am, calling them as I see them."

A three-way race

Still in a self-critical mood, Mr. Davis says: "I know it sounds old-fashioned -- I am old-fashioned." As the June 2 primary approaches, he is winning the old-fashioned way in a three-way race that until recently seemed a harbinger of a new era of politics dominated by rich political arrivistes.

Mr. Davis has been in politics since the 1970s, when he was chief of staff for the last Democratic governor, Jerry Brown. (The last Democratic governor not from the Brown family was Culbert Olson, elected in 1938.) But Mr. Davis' plod to the pinnacle was threatened when the forces of political sanitation passed very low limits on political contributions. Before these limits were declared unconstitutional in January, they encouraged Al Checchi, a half-billionaire businessman, to seek the governorship the basis of his own checkbook.

Then came Jane Harman, a three-term congresswoman, running because she is rich and because Mr. Checchi and Mr. Davis are chromosomally challenged. Fifty-five percent of California's Democratic primary voters are women. Both senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are Democratic women; the party's last two gubernatorial candidates were women.

When Ms. Harman briefly threatened to knock Mr. Checchi from the lead, he -- spending $1.5 million a week on television -- repealed his promise to avoid negative ads. He attacked her in a ham-handed way, saying she "voted to increase the power of the IRS over seniors." (She voted to make income tax information available to hospitals so they could determine whether applicants for benefits are eligible.) He says she "voted with Newt Gingrich to raise Medicare premiums." (She voted to increase premiums for people making more than $70,000 a year.) He says she voted "to tax Social Security benefits." (She supported President Clinton's 1993 plan to tax the benefits of wealthy recipients.) He says she voted to cut Social Security. (She favored recomputation of the Consumer Price Index.)

These attacks, and the impression that her chromosomes are her entire political philosophy, caused her to sink. But Mr. Checchi has followed her down.

A private choice

California's Democratic Party, like the national party, is a subsidiary of the public education lobby. It was not understanding when Mr. Checchi, asked if he would even consider sending his children to public school, said, "Of course not, why would I do that?" and vowed he would "not sacrifice my children's future." But Mr. Checchi's main problem is not this or that mistake. Rather, it is the impression of arrogance he has created by spending upward of $40 million.

He has tried making an aristocratic argument for the social utility of wealth in a democracy: "I am not dependent on a political career" and "I don't have to spend 70 to 80 percent of my time raising money." But he has left the insulting impression that he believes he can buy a quantity of advertising sufficient to put the manipulable public on a leash.

Reformers who fret that Americans need protection from "too much money" in politics should relax. Voters can fend for themselves amid unregulated political speech.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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