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Debate Gives Van de Kamp, Feinstein Chance for Spontaneity

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In these days of 30-second TV commercials, nightly polling, focus groups, multimillion-dollar budgets, handpicked crowds and high-powered consultants, little in politics is left for spontaneity.

One of the few exceptions occurs tonight when Dianne Feinstein and John K. Van de Kamp, the two Democratic contenders for governor, debate for an hour in front of a television audience, the first of two face-to-face debates in their long campaign.

The encounter will occur in the studio of San Francisco station KRON from 8 to 9 p.m.

Locally, public television KCET in Los Angeles and station KNSD in San Diego will air the debate live. Several radio stations also will carry the event live, including KNX, KFWB and KFI in Los Angeles. The debate also will be aired live on KCRA-TV in Sacramento.

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Political experts say that never before have leading candidates for governor from the same party debated on live statewide television before a primary in California.

The format calls for a panel of reporters to question the candidates in rotation. Answers are limited to 60 seconds, with follow-up responses held to 30 seconds. Each candidate will be given a two-minute closing statement.

The panel of reporters was chosen by KRON with each campaign allowed veto power. The result was a group of Northern California reporters, none of whom has specialized in coverage of the 1990 governor’s race. A station official said this was an effort to avoid an emphasis on “inside baseball” questions.

A second debate is scheduled in Los Angeles in a week at KCBS.

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Although ratings for these events are expected to be low (competing with “Murder She Wrote,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “The Simpsons”), the potential impact is exceedingly high.

Feinstein has led in recent public opinion samplings, but she and Van de Kamp have exchanged the front-runner spot before and many experts believe neither candidate has established a lasting hold on voters. The latest Los Angeles Times Poll found 38% of the Democrats still undecided. Events like televised debates, especially those that come near the June 5 election, can crystallize feelings.

Using past general election debates as a guideline, viewers can expect the impact to come in two stages. First is the event itself and the immediate aftermath, perhaps a confusing flurry of images, information and hurried analysis. The second stage emerges over the following day or two--a distillation of the debate to perhaps a single lingering image, say a goof or a powerful comeback.

Most big political debates, in fact, are remembered not for the hour that they last but for the one moment that hangs in the memory: Michael Dukakis’ halting answer when he was asked what he would do if someone raped his wife, Dan Quayle’s shocked expression when Lloyd Bentsen told him he was “no Jack Kennedy,” and Ronald Reagan’s comeback about his age and how he wouldn’t hold Walter Mondale’s youth against him.

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Because of this tendency, debate coaching is a refined art.

Public officials who recall the process privately tell how speech writers prep them with crispy one-liner “sound bites,” and how facial expressions and hand gestures are practiced.

Feinstein and Van de Kamp have been undergoing several days of preparation, including mock debates. Los Angeles lawyer Barry Groveman has been playing Van de Kamp in the mock debates with Feinstein while Loretta Lynch, another Los Angeles attorney, is standing in for Feinstein with Van de Kamp.

The past has shown, however, that for all the drilling, there is nothing like a debate under the TV lights to put a candidate on the spot.

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And in this case, an extra element of drama emerges because of each candidate’s seeming confidence in quite different skills--Van de Kamp the seasoned lawyer with his deep understanding of the workings of state government; Feinstein the telegenic former chief executive with a knack for making people feel that she understands exactly their situation.


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