Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ed Zschau, under steady attack from his GOP rivals for being liberal and inconsistent, has been hearing for weeks that he should take off the gloves.
Normally the cerebral Boy Scout, Zschau took them off Friday at KABC radio, pounding opponent Bruce Herschensohn and using the occasion to raise a touchy issue for California Republicans: Would Herschensohn, a proud ultraconservative, be cannon fodder for Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who has whipped such candidates in three previous elections?
"He would be in the right wing of the U.S. Senate with Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who is supporting him," Zschau said of Herschensohn, who stood beside him at an impromptu news conference after their radio debate.
"I don't think that represents California," Zschau continued. "Somebody who says, as Bruce does, that we should get out of the United Nations and get the U.N. out of America is great for the John Birch Society but not for California. He's on the extreme edge of the right wing of our party.
"Each time Alan Cranston has won against candidates who cannot appeal to the political center," said Zschau, who touts himself as best able to battle Cranston for moderate Democrats and independents.
But when a reporter asked Herschensohn if he had to appeal to a broader base to win in November, he deftly shot back, "That's what they kept telling President Reagan and Gov. Deukmejian."
The change in tactics was a major one for Rep. Zschau of Los Altos, a former businessman who had hoped to sell himself to GOP voters as a cool, pragmatic problem-solver and avoid the sniping so common to crowded primaries.
But with the voting only 18 days away and his rivals' attacks continuing, Zschau had had enough. He got his first opportunity to paint Herschensohn as too extreme minutes after they locked horns on KABC's "Michael Jackson Show."
Herschensohn espoused his belief that the United States should stand by any country that is friendly to it, even if that country's leaders are repressive.
"Pity the poor people who live in a country whose regime is friendly to us," Zschau retorted. "They can be as repressive as they want, and we'll continue to support them. . . . Bruce supported Somoza (former Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza) . . . and supporting Somoza in my mind gave rise to the revolution that created the Sandinista phenomenon."
When asked to defend his support of the nuclear freeze, Zschau again used the opportunity to raise alarms about Herschensohn, who has said he would sign no arms agreements with the Soviets, because they cannot be trusted.
"The nuclear freeze resolution specified a sense of Congress to find a way to halt the arms race through a mutual and verifiable freeze and reductions of nuclear weapons," Zschau said. "President Reagan is in Geneva through his ambassadors. . . ."
Herschensohn broke in, "President Reagan was opposed to (the freeze) so don't make out that he supports it."
Zschau: "President Reagan is for arms control and you're not."
But if Herschensohn's uncompromising conservatism is potentially troublesome for him, he knows that Zschau's Achilles' heel could be his mixed votes, or "flip-flops," on certain issues.
"The most basic courtesy is to let the voter know how you stand on issues, so there are no surprises if you are elected to the Senate," Herschensohn said. "Are you for the MX, yes or no? I sure am. Are you for economic sanctions against South Africa? No, I'm not. . . . Are you for aid to the contras ? (I am) consistently. . . . You don't get those kinds of answers out of Ed Zschau."
Zschau once cast a vote for the MX, then changed his mind. He opposed a House bill with strong sanctions against South Africa, then supported a later bill that was less stringent and denounced apartheid. He once voted against arming the contras fighting the Nicaraguan government, then switched to support that plan this year.
In each case, Zschau said, he changed his mind based on new information. But Herschensohn charges that Republicans will not know what they are getting if Zschau is the nominee.
At the same time that many Republican and Democratic strategists are predicting the pragmatic Zschau would be a tough opponent for Cranston, some of Zschau's rivals for the nomination are clearly more uncomfortable with his candidacy than with each other's.
Herschensohn and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich debated like best friends on Thursday at an event sponsored by Town Hall.
And Antonovich is sending out direct mail attacking some of Zschau's House votes, even though it is Herschensohn who is now touting himself as the man to beat, based on a new California Poll that found the former commentator with 18% of the vote. Zschau and state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) were next with 15% each.
Davis, at least, has his sights set on Cranston. Speaking of the incumbent, he told a reporter, "I plan to wring that old buzzard's neck in November."