Cranston, Zschau Ending Curdled Race : After 2 Years, $20 Million, Senate Decision Is Voters’

Times Political Writer

After two years and a record $20-million worth of persuasion, provocation and bombast--but, oh-so-little exaltation--Californians are just four tantalizing days away from getting their say in the U.S. Senate election.

On Tuesday, they pick between:

--A familiar old face, a proud liberal who did not run from his past, a three-term veteran and ranking leader among Democrats in the Senate, a man with abiding optimism in what people can accomplish collectively with their government -- 72-year-old Sen. Alan MacGregor Cranston of Los Altos Hills.

--And, a tempting new face, a relentless pragmatist who entered politics after two other successful careers, an entrepreneur in fashionable Silicon Valley electronics, a Republican with abiding optimism in what people can accomplish individually through the free-enterprise system -- 46-year-old Rep. Edwin Van Wyck Zschau of Los Altos.


Zschau and Cranston have served up a campaign with a somewhat curdled taste--a chilly technological battle of televised slurs that consumed the race. The tacticians explain that it is easier and cheaper to worry the electorate than to inspire it.

“It’s shocking to me, the nature of this campaign,” said Larry Berg, director of the USC Institute of Politics. “There is no campaign. It’s Zschau and Cranston running between wealthy group and wealthy person, and spending the rest of their time figuring out which negative commercials they will run and when.”

In a recent interview, Zschau expressed the frank frustration that even the candidates share. “I’ll be glad when Nov. 4 comes and I can start talking about the future and what I’m about,” he said.

Senate campaigns in California, by their nature, can be remote affairs, with far-away personalities and baffling issues. And much of the campaign, except the final two weeks, occurred while Congress was in session, demanding both Zschau and Cranston be in perpetual motion, from here to there and back. Voters may remember the election for its television images. Candidates are apt to remember it for countless red-eye flights and the weary grind of raising millions of dollars within federal laws that limit contributions to $2,000 per person.


High Stakes

Certainly the stakes are high enough on Tuesday.

Democrats have long counted on Cranston’s reelection as the anchor for their nationwide drive to regain a controlling majority in the Senate. President Reagan is scheduled to come home to California for two events in the next 72 hours at which he will plead otherwise. The President argues that Zschau’s election and continued GOP control of the Senate will reduce congressional mischief for the last two years of the Reagan revolution.

Zschau is banking heavily that Reagan’s popularity will raise the stakes in the last weekend of the long campaign and bring the electorate alive.


Just as the campaign ends on a presidential note, so it began on one.

It was at the conclusion of the 1984 presidential election, with other liberals sulking in defeat, that Cranston started his drive to be the first four-term California senator in more than half a century. Cranston ran in the early Democratic presidential primaries, showed poorly and dropped out. He looked politically weak and ready to be finished off at home.

Most Expensive Race

But he clenched his teeth and with resolve returned to California and rebuilt. One after another, he scared off potential Democratic primary challengers. He re-energized his base of support, smoothed down some of the hard liberal edges of his presidential campaign platform. He took the dye out of his wispy fringe of hair.


And he began raising huge amounts of money in what has become the most expensive election race in California history. With it, he hired one of the most talent-rich campaign staffs ever assembled for a mere state race.

And then he went on the attack.

Zschau waited a year, until November, 1985, before he joined 12 other GOP challengers anxious for a crack at Cranston. Unknown outside the San Francisco peninsula and born with a tongue-twister of a name, Zschau held back to make sure that no super-star contenders, such as baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, would join the field and spoil his chances.

Zschau bought his way out of statewide obscurity. Businessmen, who felt that finally here was one of their own on the ballot, poured money into his campaign. And he poured it into television, by the millions.


Moderate, Easy Charm

He blew right past established conservative candidates by showing the outline of a moderate, futurist-minded man with easy charm. Republicans finally had a candidate who Cranston could not, as he had with his three previous opponents, dispatch easily as a right-winger.

Even before he went to sleep the night of his victory, however, Zschau’s Mr. Nice guy candidacy was in Cranston’s sights and being readied for a roughing up.

It was only a matter of time, after falling behind by double-digit margins in the polls, that Zschau countered with attacks of his own.


Logic seemed to dictate that the campaign would evolve naturally into a struggle between two sweeping philosophies, between two skillful and energetic politicians.

But Cranston expanded the agenda. With the conservative demographics of California mounting against him, he succeeded in making the campaign more than a test of his liberalism versus Zschau’s high-tech moderation. Cranston made it a contest of character as well.

Cranston Slogan

“Maybe you don’t always agree with me, but at least you know where I stand” became the Cranston slogan.


Pragmatists such as Zschau, it seems, are susceptible to the question: What do you stand for? And this became the motif of Cranston’s assault on the challenger.

Zschau, oddly enough, seemed almost eager to help raise doubts about himself. His first act as the GOP nominee was to try and temper Jewish opposition to his candidacy. Jews perceived him as squishy on Israel. So, he flew off to Israel and came back with a new and hastily drawn Mideast policy that seemed unconvincing.

This foretold many such changes, which fueled the charge of flip-flopper. Right down to the final days of the campaign, Zschau was openly altering his views on major issues.

Republicans deepened the problem for their nominee. Conservatives, who rule the party in Southern California, never were enthusiastic about this moderate from the north, and were forever asking Zschau to make a nod to the right.


Took On Hard Edge

Zschau’s campaign took on a hard edge, appealing to conservatives by goading Cranston for opposing the death penalty and not speaking out on the question of retaining Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

It appeared in the eyes of some that Zschau had become a lot like the conservative candidates he vanquished in the primary.

Only with the campaign well under way, and its tone already set, did Zschau begin to make use of the leverage available to a challenger and compel the incumbent to defend his record.


Educated as a scientist, Zschau is heavily reliant on polls. And the polls told him that the public is most concerned about drugs, crime and spending. So, he sighted in on Cranston’s record in these areas, even though foreign trade and industrial competitiveness are what really interest Zschau.

Ever since Labor Day, Zschau says he has been helpless to run the campaign he wanted on the themes he wanted because of the sustained intensity and seeming success of Cranston’s attacks, and because the senator declined face-to-face debate.

Three Other Candidates

The lack of debates left three other candidates out in the cold as well. These are the minor party nominees, Libertarian Breck McKinley, American Independent Edward B. Vallen and Peace and Freedom nominee Paul Kangas.


“I have to say, I’m disappointed in this campaign,” Zschau declared. “For a man who three years ago told us he should be President of the United States of America, to decline to debate the issues is a disgrace.”

At the same time Zschau will confess, as he has repeatedly, that he has been at war with himself as well as with Cranston because he so dislikes having to be on the attack like this.

“I’ve had to adopt a different style. I’m not as comfortable with it. You can probably tell that,” Zschau said.

For his part, Cranston is like the war horse knee deep in 1,000 acres of sweet alfalfa.


“All and all, I’m delighted. It’s been exciting and challenging. I’ve had fun and excitement.”