Their most seasoned candidate just dropped out. Their least experienced has done almost nothing politically for a year--but continues to lead the polls. Their most daring contender is acting strangely cautious. Their most dogged, if conventional, competitor is the experts’ pick to win. And some people are still shopping for a new face.
This is the view down in the trenches of the Democratic primary election campaign for governor.
Fifteen months before the 1990 primary voting, Democrats are taking stock of their prospects after the announcement Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy that he will not run for governor but will seek reelection to the No. 2 job.
Their inventory of questions goes like this: How to explain San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s strength in the polls despite a year of political retirement? Why is California Controller Gray Davis reluctant to take a gamble and stir up the race with a bold stroke? Is the careful brick-and-mortar politics of Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp a formula for victory like many experts figure? Is a surprise entrant in the offing? And what of McCarthy’s future?
McCarthy was the party’s most experienced statewide contender--but remains personally dispirited and politically weakened by the drubbing he took last year in the U.S. Senate race at the hands of Pete Wilson, the same man the Republicans are likely to field for governor.
Some of McCarthy’s supporters believe that he will now hang back in the shadows this election, hoping to regain strength and re-emerge as a candidate for higher office later. Other Democrats think Wednesday’s announcement spells the end of McCarthy’s long climb up. “Leo will never be as strong as he is today,” longtime Los Angeles political consultant Joe Cerrell said. “I think he’s peaked.”
McCarthy’s withdrawal from contention leaves a field of three Democrats running for governor--and, who knows, one or two more could jump in late. At this point, party leaders, political professionals and activists say there is reason to cheer, and cause for fear, as the campaign takes shape.
The good news for Democrats is the belief that political winds are shifting in favor of more government activism. Polls show it. Democrats sense it; Republicans are openly adjusting for it.
“There is a growing marketplace for moderate-to-liberal Democratic ideas,” said Richard Maullin of Santa Monica, veteran pollster and an adviser to candidate Davis. “The public is ready for an agenda that is seemingly perfect for a Democratic candidate.”
The not-so-good news is that many Democrats believe that none of their party’s would-be governors sufficiently stirs the voters.
“It’s pretty depressing for the Democrats,” said Allison Thomas, a Sherman Oaks businesswoman and party activist. She is representative of a group of hungry, youngish Democrats who are not satisfied with the existing lineup of candidates or the tone of their campaigns.
The problem, as explained by Maullin, is that voters may be thinking more sympathetically about Democratic ideas but they have not found a Democratic leader who they believe can make good on their promises. “There is a crisis of confidence for Democrats, a deteriorating sense that government cannot meet the agenda they are spelling out,” he said.
This, of course, comes as no shock to Democratic contenders.
From their positions in the government, both Van de Kamp and Davis are scrambling to establish “can-do” reputations.
Brandishing an AK-47 on the floor of the state Assembly, Van de Kamp has taken an uncharacteristically showy lead in the legislative campaign to ban assault rifles. And next week, he will personally step before the California Supreme Court--and the news media--to argue the merits of the voter-passed insurance reform initiative, Proposition 103.
Davis, whose office offers fewer such natural political possibilities, is trying not to be forgotten, however. He announced Wednesday that he is starting a new publicity campaign to identify wasteful government spending. The first of his “taxpayer watchdog” reprimands was awarded to the state Department of Conservation. Davis said the department billed taxpayers $13,988 in taxicab fares for the delivery of documents.
Feinstein, although without public office right now, has joined the competition, producing a polished 8-by-10 brochure for Democratic opinion leaders that gushes over her nine years as mayor. She describes herself as the “first American public official” to organize a government campaign to cope with AIDS. The brochure does not mention the $77-million budget deficit she left the city in 1988, which some observers believe will haunt her throughout a campaign.
Van de Kamp continues to be the favorite of Establishment Democrats and political insiders during the early going.
Supporters argue his mix of liberal politics and law enforcement experience offers the strongest combination of any Democratic contender. Unlike all others who are testing the waters, Van de Kamp has allowed that there will be no turning back. His approach is the most methodical and traditional of campaigns--working each of the party’s many constituencies for support, and along the way building a huge political staff of national standing.
Incrementally, the strategy has paid off. Last week for instance, Van de Kamp traveled to Bal Harbour, Fla., to the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting and proved himself the favorite of many union leaders.
“This is a guy, each step, who passes the test,” said Paul Maslin, the Washington-based pollster who has signed up with the campaign.
But even among Democrats there is doubt whether Van de Kamp can sustain his dual image as a law-and-order man and also a liberal. “He opposes the death penalty and supported (ousted Chief Justice) Rose Bird. I don’t see how someone like that can survive what the Republicans are sure to dish out,” activist Allison Thomas said.
In announcing Wednesday that he will not run for governor, McCarthy refrained from endorsing anyone else, even though such a plan had been discussed with Van de Kamp recently, according to sources familiar with the talks between the two men.
“The people who said that would happen were a little bit out ahead of themselves,” McCarthy said in an interview.
For her part, Feinstein in recent weeks has gone from a political question mark to a serious contender.
On the strength of her first-place showings last month and one year ago among Democrats sampled by the California Poll of Mervin Field, Feinstein said she could not resist mounting an exploratory campaign.
Her husband, investment banker Richard Blum, promised her a $1-million grubstake. And she is now hurrying to build a political organization and establish connections in Southern California, where she is little traveled.
It was learned that Feinstein is trying to accomplish both goals in dramatic fashion by seeking the endorsement and political help of the Waxman-Berman political organization of Reps. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). So far, the organization has not committed to any of the candidates. To make herself better known here, aides said she will soon lease a Century City apartment.
In his exploratory bid, Davis has resisted repeated and urgent advice from some of his backers to be more bold in trying to improve his underdog position.
Instead, the normally aggressive Davis has chosen to move cautiously, fueling speculation that he ultimately will drop out and wait for a future opening. “He’s probably at the point in the campaign that his only opportunity lies in some truly heroic act,” said one supporter who asked not to be named.
At least three potential surprise candidates are being discussed in political circles.
Peter Ueberroth has been flirting with running for governor once he leaves his job as baseball commissioner at the end of the month--but always as a Republican.
Now, some Democrats reportedly are urging him to consider switching parties and run in their primary. Democrats note that Ueberroth has hinted that his views on at least some social issues are more liberal than the GOP platform. At the same time, they argue, his reputation for can-do has wide appeal to the electorate, regardless of party.
“A delegation of Democrats did talk to him. He received them politely. But he is a Republican and he doesn’t have any intention of changing,” said one GOP strategist who is familiar with Ueberroth. Neither this source nor others who confirmed the overture would say who the Democrats were.
Two other men are considered improbable but nonetheless attract speculation.
One is Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who maintains his high standing in the polls and is heading toward a landslide reelection April 11. He has run for governor twice before and some wonder if he will not be tempted to do it again. The other is Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), who risks a reputation as a perennial office-shopper as he takes a glance at this contest. So far, he has shown an unwillingness to risk his seat in Congress.
Contributing to this account were Times political writer Keith Love and labor writer Henry Weinstein