Levine Starts His High-Stakes Political Gamble : Campaign: Candidate will spend about $500,000 a week on TV ads to try to gain wider recognition. But some see risk in the late-blooming strategy.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rep. Mel Levine uncloaks his "stealth" candidacy for the U.S. Senate today with the beginning of a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign designed to boost him from a black hole in the opinion polls to victory in the primary election in just 63 days.

Three kickoff ads employ the authoritative voice of actor James Earl Jones--Darth Vader's voice in the "Star Wars" movies--to promote Democrat Levine as a congressional achiever, but also a man in touch with those outraged by congressional check-bouncing at the now-defunct House bank.

Levine says in one ad: "My account's at a local bank, like yours."

"The problem with Washington goes beyond bad checks. It's losing touch with the people . . . the seduction of power," adds Levine, who is one of the wealthier Californians in Congress.

The ads are going on television stations statewide beginning today at a cost of about $500,000 a week, Levine press aide Hope Warschaw said. In all, the campaign has booked--or will reserve--commercial time between now and the June 2 primary at an estimated cost of $3 million to $4 million. The three ads contain similar messages that focus on the checks, on Levine's record on the environment and foreign affairs, and his support for President Bush in the war against Iraq.

Levine's television advertising effort has been awaited as a sort of benchmark of the U.S. Senate campaigns because of its ambition and because of the reputation of the political organization that backs him.

There never was any doubt that the five-term congressman from Santa Monica would mount a formidable campaign for the Senate seat now held by retiring Democrat Alan Cranston. Levine is the junior member of the influential Westside Los Angeles-based political organization of fellow Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Howard L. Berman. He is a potent campaign fund-raiser and a shrewd politician.

But some California political experts see risk in the late-blooming strategy of Levine's campaign management firm of Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino, known by the acronym BAD.

For more than a year, Levine has remained largely out of the public eye--and often away from Washington--while he built a $4-million-plus bankroll for his campaign for the six-year Senate term. That tactic led to the tag of stealth candidate, with Levine's recognition by potential voters languishing at well below 10% in statewide opinion polls.

All the while, Levine's major opponents, Rep. Barbara Boxer of Marin County and Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, traveled around the state building support and bolstering their poll numbers. The most recent California Poll released last week had McCarthy at 41% among potential Democratic voters, Boxer 24% and Levine 7%. There were 28% undecided.

By the end of 1991, however, Levine had more than three times as much cash on hand as either Boxer or McCarthy.

The BAD strategy hinges on the belief that voters do not focus on the election until the month or two before the election. When voters finally choose a candidate, according to the Berman-D'Agostino scenario, they base their decisions primarily on television campaign advertising reinforced by targeted campaign literature delivered by mail.

The BAD approach has been effective in local elections and state legislative campaigns, but has not been tested in a top-level statewide race for governor or senator. Many political observers drew the analogy between Levine's strategy and the 1986 Senate campaign of former Rep. Ed Zschau of Los Altos, who rose from obscurity to win the Republican nomination to run against Cranston, barely losing to Cranston in November.

Each Levine ad even makes a play on his name at the conclusion by echoing: "Levine . . . Levine . . . Levine . . ." The first Zschau ad in 1986 featured a stylized pronunciation of his unusual name that sounded something like a jet swooping overhead.

But Ron Smith, who managed the Zschau campaign and is representing Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Palo Alto) in the contest for Cranston's seat, said there are major differences. When Zschau launched his ad on Feb. 23, he was at less than 1% in the statewide opinion polls. At that time, the leading candidate in a 13-candidate race, commentator Bruce Herschensohn, had 10% and there was a considerable undecided vote, Smith said.

It will be much more difficult for Levine to jump from 7% to the high 30s, which may be necessary to win a three-way contest, Smith said.

However, Levine does have a base in Southern California, where the majority of voters are. Zschau was relatively well known in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Silicon Valley, but started from scratch south of the Tehachapis.

While the House-checks ad did not mention Boxer by name, it clearly was aimed at her. The House Ethics Committee has reported recently that Boxer had 143 bad checks with a total face value of $41,417.82. Previously, the Boxer staff had calculated there were only 87 checks at $29,276.37.

Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski reacted sharply Monday to the Levine ads, saying: "Is he criticizing the 'seduction of power'? He's the product of a political machine.

"Barbara and Leo have been campaigning for over a year talking to voters every day up and down the state," Kapolczynski said. "Levine's been off in some hidey-hole in Beverly Hills raising money. It's a little bit unbelievable."

Roy Behr, McCarthy's campaign manager, said Levine's claim of being an independent candidate are undermined by the fact that he accepted more than $150,000 in honorariums from "special interests" for giving speeches during his congressional career. Behr cited copies of Levine's financial disclosure reports filed with the House.

"Nobody with that kind of record can claim to be that independent. . . . Money straight into his pocket," Behr said.

The Ad Campaign

Democratic Senate candidate Mel Levine has launched a television advertising campaign expected ultimately to cost $4 million. Here are highlights with analysis by Times political writer Bill Stall. U.S. Rep. Mel Levine

* THE AD: Levine begins running three 30-second television campaign commercials today that emphasize several common points: that Levine has a strong record in Congress on the environment, in foreign affairs and on trade and technology issues, that he broke with other Democrats to support President Bush's war against Saddam Hussein, and that he bounced no checks at the bank of the House of Representatives. "Bad checks on the congressional bank?" Levine says opening one ad. "I've never written one. . . . My account's at a local bank, like yours. The problem with Washington goes beyond bad checks. It's losing touch with the people." The ads use the voice of actor James Earl Jones to describe Levine this way: "A career devoted to protecting our environment. . . . He voiced the anti-war anguish of a generation in his speech at Harvard Law; a foreign policy expert, the only Democrat running for U.S. Senate to vote for Operation Desert Storm."

* ANALYSIS: Levine did have an account at the House bank and used it for about one year. He stopped using it, aides said, because it was not convenient. While Levine subsequently banked with private institutions "just like you," Levine probably did not have to worry about overdrawing his account. He is one of the wealthiest California members of Congress with property and other assets worth more than $1 million. Although the ad does not mention her, it clearly is aimed at one of Levine's Democratic primary opponents, Rep. Barbara Boxer, who had 143 bad checks with a face value of $41,417.82. As the ad says, Levine has focused much of his time in Washington on environmental issues. Levine delivered a strong anti-war speech at his Harvard Law graduation in 1969, but did break with fellow Democratic liberals by supporting Bush against Iraq. Levine has been a loyal friend of Israel and has been a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee for nine years.

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