CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Van de Kamp Turns to Schoolchildren in Effort to Warm Up His Public Image


Behind in the polls and presumed to be behind in money raising, there was but one thing for John Van de Kamp to do Wednesday: try to out-shine the more telegenic Dianne Feinstein with a little pizzazz of his own.

So it was that Van de Kamp found himself surrounded by clamoring children at a Santa Monica elementary school, sharing a meal of fried chicken and chocolate milk on an undersized bench while they peppered him with questions.

A brief crisis surfaced almost immediately, when the attorney general was told he looked just like Jack Nicholson.

"You mean the Joker?" Van de Kamp said, gulping. "Did you like the Joker?"

"Yes!" the children, obviously acquainted with "Batman," thundered back.

It was probably the only time in Van de Kamp's gubernatorial campaign that someone listening to him would proclaim--breathlessly, as a 10-year-old girl did--that "he is so radical."

But the event was symbolic of Van de Kamp's dual requisite in the final two weeks of the primary campaign.

First, to compete with what Van de Kamp acknowledges is a sense of warmth and empathy that Feinstein exudes, he must graft onto his somewhat dour public image a personality that can attract voters emotionally. Thus, frolicking with the schoolchildren.

At the same time, he has to raise enough questions about Feinstein's capability to be governor that he speaks to pragmatists and fiscal worriers as well. Thus, Van de Kamp spent the morning and part of his school visit raising direct and not-so-direct questions about Feinstein's mastery of complex budget matters.

Left until Election Day was the answer to the essential question: Can you persuade voters you're a nice, warm guy--and simultaneously go on the attack?

The results are crucial for a campaign that has had little objective good news lately. For weeks now, public opinion polls have trumpeted Feinstein's surge in popularity compared to Van de Kamp. The two recent televised debates, which Van de Kamp had hoped would boost him into orbit, appear at this point not to have markedly changed the campaign's dynamic. Another survey released Wednesday, the Teichner Poll, had Feinstein a stunning 17 percentage points above Van de Kamp.

For the record, Van de Kamp dismisses public polls as "all over the lot" and says his personal instinct is that the race remains close. But he describes himself as the "underdog"--and the perception that he is falling behind has added new stress to the pressure-cooker of a nearing primary.

In recent days, Van de Kamp, 54, has expressed frustration with how little voters seem to know of him, and with the difficulty in changing his personality to fit the demands of a state whose politics are dominated by television.

"I can't make myself into a Warren Beatty or a Marlon Brando," he said recently. "You can't change yourself.

"I must say," he added, "you would think that after some 30 years in public life people would get a better sense of you."

In person, Van de Kamp does come across more warmly than he does on television, where he appears to be what he is--a lawyer--and his dry sense of humor usually vanishes. But Van de Kamp's campaign has done little to change his image by the typical routes used by candidates in similar straits--having him regularly campaign among voters, for example, or visit schoolchildren.

Wednesday's visit to Grant Elementary School in Santa Monica marked a departure, and one he seemed to relish. As television cameras whirred, children rallied around him as if he was the Joker. A young girl shyly came around behind him and offered a smile. A classmate, a more boisterous boy, added a high-five. The questions came pell-mell.

"If you get to be governor, what are you going to do about gangs?" asked one child, giving Van de Kamp a chance to tout his anti-crime initiative.

"What are you going to do about pollution?" asked another.

"Are you going to give better shelters for the homeless people," interrupted one fifth-grade girl.

"Yes, absolutely," the attorney general replied with a smile.

Van de Kamp acknowledged Wednesday that his opponent, the former San Francisco mayor, has an advantage in the charisma department.

"She's a woman, she's telegenic. I think she speaks well, conveys warmth," he told reporters at a breakfast meeting.

"I tend to go to the side of substance," he added. ". . . I submit to you that by and large she has run on style."

Feinstein's campaign, of course, disagrees, and polls would seem to suggest that whatever Feinstein is delivering, voters approve. For that reason, Van de Kamp has steadily been drumming on the question of Feinstein's fitness for office.

On Wednesday, for example, he repeated his criticism of Feinstein's statement that everything--including cost-of-living adjustments for the elderly, blind and disabled--would be on the table when it came to negotiating a solution to the state's $3.6-billion budget deficit.

"We're talking about children that have been abused; you're talking about welfare mothers and their children," he said. "That's what the COLAs (cost-of-living adjustments) are all about. They're not numbers."

Van de Kamp has laid out specific budget cuts and tax increases that he said would deal with the deficit, and has repeatedly challenged Feinstein, 56, to do the same. She has declined. Asked Wednesday whether he was questioning Feinstein's ability to understand the state budget, Van de Kamp replied: "Yes, I am."

Feinstein's campaign issued a terse retort.

"In order for a charge like that to be effective, it has to have some basis in fact," said Dee Dee Myers, Feinstein's press secretary. "He's clearly grabbing for straws in the final days of this campaign."

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