Wilson, McCarthy Struggle to Capture Voters’ Attention

Times Staff Writers

There is a somersaulting poodle named Flip-Flop waiting in the wings of Sen. Pete Wilson’s reelection campaign.

Flip-flop is Wilson’s way of trying to convince television viewers that Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy’ has seesawed on a number of issues. The acrobatic dog is also the Wilson campaign’s answer to McCarthy’s goat, featured in TV ads last week to trivialize Wilson’s stature in the Senate. The ad makes fun of Wilson’s sponsorship of National Dairy Goat Awareness Week.

There are risks in turning a U.S. Senate race into an animal act. McCarthy has already apologized to goat farmers who were upset over his commercial. They were especially miffed that the animal shown in McCarthy’s ad was a mountain goat, not a dairy goat. McCarthy has assured them he will fix the ad.

Both sides in the Senate race say they would prefer to finish up on a more edifying note. But Wilson and McCarthy are still struggling to get voters to pay attention to them. A recent Los Angeles Times Poll showed that 30% of the voters had not made up their minds. So, if it takes a dog doing tricks to arouse voter interest, Flip-Flop will take his bows.


Behind in the polls and outspent on television, McCarthy is in bigger trouble than Wilson.

Frequently, the Democratic challenger is finding the campaign trail a lonely place. Television news crews almost never follow him. And so few newspaper reporters were expected to attend his press conferences that he canceled one in Sacramento on Friday and another in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Wilson is not getting much more attention, but as the front-runner he does not need the publicity as much as McCarthy does.

One McCarthy stop in San Jose last week was typical: About two dozen people showed up at a senior center to hear McCarthy play the piano with the facility’s country and western band. Several gray-haired women took turns dancing with the lieutenant governor. But when it came time to talk, McCarthy scrapped his prepared speech, choosing instead to chat informally with the small group.


Links to Dukakis, Jackson

In hopes of finding larger audiences and perhaps a little free TV time, McCarthy has joined up with national headliners, like Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis, who can be counted on to draw a crowd.

But even on Saturday, when McCarthy followed Jackson to the microphone at a rally in Elysian Park, most in the crowd of 2,000 people drifted away during his short speech. McCarthy’s aides made the best of the situation by hastily getting Jackson to tape a radio commercial for McCarthy.

McCarthy teamed up with Dukakis on Sunday for a whistle-stop train trip through the San Joaquin Valley.

In Fresno, McCarthy sharpened his attack on Wilson, charging that the anti-drug bill recently approved by Congress with Wilson’s support, is not “worth the paper it’s printed on” because it does not provide funds for its anti-drug programs. Asked if he would have voted against the bill, which also imposes the death penalty on drug dealers, McCarthy said he never would have allowed the bill to reach the Senate floor without including financing.

McCarthy’s aides say that if the voters can just get to know McCarthy, they will like what they see. Toward that end, the campaign has made two new television ads designed to send McCarthy into the voters’ living rooms.

Called a Simple Message

“It’s just Leo up close and personal with a simple, direct message about who he is and what he would do for the people of California,” said Kam Kuwata of McCarthy’s staff.


The ads try to establish a rapport between McCarthy and voters who yearn for a more high-toned campaign.

“There has been an unpleasant ugliness in this year’s campaigns. Voters have been treated contemptuously, not as partners in the greatest democracy on Earth,” McCarthy says in the ad. He goes on to stress his commitment to Social Security, education, health care and clean air and water.

“People are getting a little tired of all the cuteness in television ads and there’s a degree to which the handlers have made a mistake in what they’re putting on the air,” Kuwata explained. “I’m not singling out our campaign and I’m not excluding our campaign.”

But even as the new ad went on TV this weekend, aides to McCarthy wondered whether it is a tad too positive, and they began dickering with an alternative script that would have McCarthy saying something unpleasant about his opponent’s record.

Just to hedge their bets, the aides also said they would continue airing the spot about Wilson and the goat.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Kuwata said.

Wilson in Church

Meanwhile, Wilson told black churchgoers Sunday that “there has been too much incitement, too much effort to divide people along class and race lines” this election year. “This is a time to heal,” Wilson said to a congregation of about 250 people at New Revelations Baptist Church in Pasadena.


Wilson’s advisers say their message will be mostly positive as the campaign winds down. They say they will go with ads that talk about Wilson’s efforts to cut wasteful military spending, about health care legislation he has proposed and about a wilderness bill he co-sponsored four years ago.

There is a jaunty air in Wilson’s San Diego headquarters these days.

“I think the race is over,” George Gorton, Wilson’s media adviser, crowed Friday.

But just in case it is not, there is always “Flip-Flop,” the somersaulting poodle. The dog cartwheels back and forth across the screen in an ad that accuses McCarthy of “flip-flopping” on such issues as the death penalty and the equal rights amendment.

“We’ll put Flip-Flop on the air if we need to,” said Otto Bos, Wilson’s campaign manager. “First, we have to see what McCarthy does next week. After all, the campaign is a game of cat and mouse.”