The down-to-the-wire race for governor took its most explosive turn Thursday when Dianne Feinstein, in what she described as retaliation for a negative advertisement against her, launched a statewide television attack blasting Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp for his handling of the Hillside Strangler murder case.
The long-threatened action set up a hot-blooded battle for control of the airwaves and the emotions of California voters just five days before Feinstein and Van de Kamp go before the electorate.
Moving into the campaign's final weekend, voters will be inundated with strongly worded, at times hyperbolic, offerings from each of the Democrats. Van de Kamp, with consumer advocate Ralph Nader as his point man, accuses Feinstein of being a pawn of the insurance industry for backing an industry initiative in 1988.
And Feinstein--with graphic film of a covered body being carried by deputies up a hillside--accuses Van de Kamp of trying to let loose a killer, Angelo Buono.
The eventual appearance of a Hillside Strangler ad had been long rumored in political circles. Feinstein and her campaign aides said the decision to air the ad was made Wednesday night.
"My opponent's campaign has been a wolf in sheep's clothing from the very beginning," Feinstein told reporters outside a hotel ballroom here, where she was to speak to about 400 women.
"They set upon a persistent effort really to distort and malign my campaign, my husband, my integrity, my record and everything else. . . . There comes a time when you have to return some of the punches in a campaign or you might get punched out--and so we're going to return them."
The former San Francisco mayor defended using the 9-year-old Hillside Strangler incident in the race for governor.
"It has something to do with the qualities and character of the person being elected. I believe that," she said.
Van de Kamp, in response, said that the Hillside Strangler ad--and a separate criticism of other parts of his prosecutorial record--were a tacit admission by Feinstein that his recent criticism of her is hitting home.
"These ads are nothing more than a panicky response to the fact that Ralph Nader has exposed Dianne Feinstein as a pawn of the insurance industry and has called her a 'Republican in Democratic clothing,' " Van de Kamp said.
"I'll match my record on law and order against hers any day. During my 25 years prosecuting criminals, I've helped put away thousands of hardened criminals including the Night Stalker and members of the Charlie Manson gang. I've sent 42 murderers to Death Row and prosecuted another 277 killers on appeal," he added. "Mrs. Feinstein has never prosecuted so much as a parking ticket."
At heart, the competing commercials and the ire they have raised in the highly charged campaign appear to revolve around the courtship of the Democratic Party's liberals and others most likely to vote.
Van de Kamp, in taking to the airwaves with Nader on Wednesday, was using a symbol of liberalism to undercut Feinstein's persistent support in the polls among liberal voters.
Those are the voters Van de Kamp, according to his campaign's strategy, must win Tuesday.
And Feinstein, in moving to retaliate, was signaling that in this crucial time period before the primary, she cannot afford to wait to see if Van de Kamp meets with success.
"The truth is you don't have the luxury of seeing how this (the Nader ad) is going to play," said Feinstein's spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers.
The timing of the exchange of ads is in keeping with the last-minute bomb-throwing expected in a state where politics is so dominated by television.
Van de Kamp said he decided to air the Nader ad as a preemptory strike against any Feinstein criticism of him. Specifically, the attorney general said he believed that the Strangler ad was certain to run.
Feinstein's campaign insisted Thursday that they had no plan to launch their ad unless Van de Kamp "went negative," as he did in the Nader ad. The Strangler ad was not filmed until Wednesday, the Feinstein campaign said.
Regardless, the decision by each campaign to go with high-powered ads had to be made by noon today at the latest, when the state's television stations arrange for weekend advertising.
The competing strategies carry the potential both for benefit and disaster.
For Van de Kamp, the decision to use Nader as his front man was based on the premise, thus far untested, that voters will go along with what the consumer advocate has to say.
And while Van de Kamp is pressing ahead with commercials focusing on his opponent, polls and political experts insist that he has yet to persuade voters to vote for him, instead of merely not for her.
For Feinstein's team, there was concern that after congratulating themselves for what the former San Francisco mayor repeatedly called a positive campaign, they might ultimately be remembered for among the most brutal of ads.
Feinstein on Thursday downplayed that concern: "I don't think it'll hurt my reputation. It takes two to have a positive campaign."
But there were signs that the concern was real. Feinstein's campaign said Thursday that it plans to resume airing a positive biographical ad on Monday, the day before the election.
The campaign also scheduled the Strangler ad to run only 50% of the time, with the remaining half of their reserved television space going to a less graphic, but still negative, ad.
The fallout of the exchange of ads is likely to persist beyond the primary election, to the deficit of whoever wins the primary. With the vitriolic past few days, politicians saw less chance for the Democrats to unify quickly after the June election.
That will leave Republican Sen. Pete Wilson on the horizon, with an almost unlimited bankroll to fire away at what could be a cashed-out Democrat.