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Money, Attack Ads Talk; Good Candidates Walk

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It's all Sen. Dianne Feinstein's fault. That's what I figure.

Well, maybe not all of it.

But if Feinstein had run for governor three years ago in the Gray Davis recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger would not have dared. That's my guess.

We would have been spared that wasteful, costly, divisive special election last year. And Feinstein, 72, would now be a shoo-in for reelection — not for the Senate, as she is, but for the state's highest office.

Actor Schwarzenegger wouldn't be running this time either. He'd assess the situation as analyst Tony Quinn does: "There's no way Arnold Schwarzenegger would have gotten elected governor this year as a non-incumbent Republican in this political climate."

This climate being turbulent for Republicans nationally.

Feinstein didn't run in 2003 because she felt that by offering herself to voters as an alternative to fellow Democrat Davis, she'd be acting like a turncoat and a jerk. Anyway, although she'd long coveted the governorship, she also loved being a senator.

So Democratic voters are stuck with what many view as disappointing choices: One-term Controller Steve Westly, whose primary qualification for governor is that he's so fabulously rich he can pay for his own campaign ($34 million as of last week), and two-term Treasurer Phil Angelides, who's also wealthy, but not quite in Westly's league. Angelides has been kept in the game by a developer pal's $9-million largesse.

You get the idea: In big-time politics these days, it's all about the money and who's got it.

The candidates need the money, they'll tell you, to "get out our message" — shamelessly delivered, too often, in attack ads.

Mark DiCamillio, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, says the recent deluge of negative ads has kept the number of undecided voters at a historic high this close to a gubernatorial primary: 26% in a survey he completed last Wednesday. He suspects the only decision being made by many people is that they're not going to vote for either candidate.

Westly and Angelides are sloshing through the mud neck and neck: 35% to 34%, respectively.

Vicious ads return us to Feinstein — and why she also didn't run for governor back in 1998, forever altering state history. (She had run in 1990, losing narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson.)

Feinstein had been smacked by a dirty Davis ad while winning a 1992 Senate primary.

Then, in her 1994 Senate reelection, she barely survived a relentless shelling by Republican Michael Huffington — another self-financed rich guy. Her wounds still hadn't healed in 1998 and she flinched.

Too bad for Democrats and California. Lt. Gov. Davis would have bowed out, I'm sure, and she would have won easily. Instead, Davis was elected.

A Gov. Feinstein would have been quicker and firmer in handling the energy crisis, and wouldn't have spent the state into debt. She would have embarked on an infrastructure rebuilding program years ago.

But there's also another reason why Feinstein is at fault, all facetiousness aside.

Leading up to 1998, she vacillated so long that it blocked out another potentially terrific governor: Leon Panetta.

Panetta, like Feinstein, is a California native who admired the visionary governorships of Earl Warren and Pat Brown. Panetta once had the distinction of being fired by President Nixon as U.S. civil rights director because he was viewed as moving too fast toward Southern school desegregation.

He became a Democrat and was elected to Congress for eight terms from Monterey. Then President Clinton tapped him to be his budget director — they ended deficit spending — and later chief of staff.

Panetta returned to California in 1996 eyeing the governor's office. "I talked with Dianne Feinstein," he recalls, "and said, 'If you run, I'll support you.'

"And then she took a long time coming to a decision. By that time, it was too late for me to raise the money. To be competitive, I'd have had to raise anywhere from $20 million to $40 million. I mean, my God!"

He settled in as director of the Panetta Institute, a think tank at Cal State Monterey Bay.

I asked Panetta, 67, why he didn't run this year. He laughed.

"I can't afford to," he answered. "I'm not independently wealthy. I'm not in the ballpark with Angelides and Westly."

Although he does own a 12-acre walnut ranch in pricey Carmel Valley, Panetta is more in the ballpark with Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. This is another Democrat whose gubernatorial dreams were dashed because he lacked sufficient millions.

Lockyer, an effective attorney general and once a skilled legislative leader, isn't rich and hates to grovel for money. So he's running for the relatively inexpensive job of treasurer.

"This state cannot survive unless we open up the opportunity for more good people to run for office," Panetta says. "You're either independently wealthy or you've got special interests backing you. People are just simply turned off about getting into the process. I honestly believe that some kind of public financing is essential."

And "these damn attack ads," he continues. Potential candidates "are turned off by that. They don't want to see their lives destroyed.

"There are a lot of things that have to change for this state to be governable." For one, he says, there must be more flexibility for elected officials to set spending priorities. Most of the money now is tied up by ballot-box budgeting through initiatives.

"You'd have to go against a lot of special interests and, in many ways, against your party to implement these reforms."

Feinstein has endorsed Angelides.

I may write in Panetta.


George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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