NEWS ANALYSIS : CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Seymour Mimics Wilson's 1990 Strategy


Here's the Republican playbook on running a statewide general election campaign against Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Dianne Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor:

1. Shortly after the primary, run a television ad attacking Feinstein--on anything, the subject does not matter--as a means of goading her into a scrap. If she fights back, this drags her down in the eyes of voters to the level of just another politician, not a newcomer and outside force for change.

2. Try to tie Feinstein, the Democratic nominee and former mayor of San Francisco, with Willie Brown, the controversial Speaker of the state Assembly, to achieve the same goal as in No. 1.

3. You're a male, but don't hesitate to promote your support for abortion rights. Create a women's support group to blunt the opponent's advantage with female voters.

That scenario has emerged in the weeks after the June 2 primary election as Republican Sen. John Seymour campaigns to retain the U.S. Senate seat he has held for 18 months by appointment by his friend and moderate GOP ideological soul mate, Gov. Pete Wilson.

There are no secrets in this plan, which is remarkably similar to the strategy Wilson followed in 1990 to defeat Feinstein for the governorship.

Seymour has his own campaign manager, his own operations staff, his own personal style and his own set of conditions under which to run. But some Republican sources say there is considerable input from Wilson aides, with one insider noting: "Pete's reputation is on the line with John."

But Jeff Weir, Seymour's press secretary, said there has been minimal involvement by Wilson associates in the Seymour campaign.

"There were wide expectations at the beginning that Seymour would be helped strategically, financially and logistically by a lot of Wilson people and the Wilson team," Weir said. "That has been a cliche from the beginning by many people in the media."

If Seymour's tactics resemble some of Wilson's of two years ago, that is essentially coincidence, Weir said.

For whatever reason, the Seymour campaign bears some obvious Wilson trademarks: Punch and jab at the opposition and keep them off balance while laying down a consistent campaign in your own behalf.

Anyone can obtain the Wilson-Seymour campaign plan for $15.95 in the form of a 239-page paperback book entitled "California Votes: The 1990 Governor's Race," published by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

The book contains a transcript of a symposium on the governor's race in Berkeley in January, 1991. The key figures in the Wilson and Feinstein campaigns participated in this 20-20 hindsight exercise that was extraordinary for the candor with which they disclosed their strategies and goals, successes and failures.

There are major differences between a campaign for governor and for U.S. senator, of course. This year marks the first time California has had two Senate races in the same year. It is a presidential election year, as well, and supposedly the year of women and outsiders in politics. The California economy is foundering. And appointed senators' fortunes often rise or fall with those of their patrons. Wilson's standing in voter approval polls is sagging.

Seymour rarely mentions Wilson as he tries to position himself as an outsider who will shake up the old Senate club. At the same time, he touts himself as an experienced government achiever.

Seymour told a recent candidate forum: "Mayor Feinstein likes to talk about change, but I'm here to tell you that I've been in the trenches to make change happen, and I've been doing it long before change suddenly became the trendy or politically correct thing to do."

Wilson hardly could portray himself as an outsider in 1990, but his handlers did promote him as a moderate agent of change who would reinvigorate dormant state government.

Seymour's approach since the June 2 primary has been similar, in philosophy and tactics:

Seymour opened with a 30-second television ad on June 15 that accused Feinstein of raising taxes while mayor, and of favoring tax increases now.

In June, 1990, Wilson levied similar charges against Feinstein, and his campaign ran an ad accusing her of supporting quotas in the hiring of women and minorities for state jobs.

"Coming out of the primary, we wanted to get Feinstein to engage us on our terms," the 1991 symposium was told by the late Otto Bos, one of Wilson's most trusted aides.

The Wilson strategists feared a backlash if voters believed that Wilson was unfairly attacking a female candidate after her unexpectedly impressive primary victory.

Wilson pollster Dick Dresner said: "If we could have her seen as attacking us first . . . then it became simply a battle between basically two normal kinds of politicians."

In 1990, Feinstein fell into the trap and responded with an ad that accused Wilson of lying about her. This year, the Feinstein campaign--once burned, twice shy--ignored the bait.

On Monday, the Seymour campaign issued a press release quoting Democratic state Chairman Phil Angelides as saying that President Bill Clinton would nominate Assembly Speaker Brown to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that Feinstein would vote to confirm him.

California political observers did not take seriously the Angelides aside, which was tossed off at a late-night national convention party sponsored by Brown, whose image is that of the consummate political wheeler-dealer.

"But it's possible," said the Seymour statement, which called the idea "horrifying."

"Feinstein and Brown are longtime cronies," the Seymour taunt continued. "And Brown's endorsement was a key momentum-builder in Feinstein's bid for governor. She owes him."

In 1990, Wilson efforts to link Feinstein with Brown were also designed to paint Feinstein as just another pol.

This time, she stomped on the Seymour allegation promptly: "That is sheer packaged campaign baloney," she retorted. "Bill Clinton will not nominate Willie Brown. Dianne Feinstein will not vote to confirm him."

Seymour spokesman Weir said that Angelides "gave us the opening" on the Brown issue and deserved some "pay-back" for some of the critical comments the Democratic chairman made about Seymour during the year.

"He made a mistake, and we thought it appropriate to see if Dianne shared his point of view," Weir said.

As for gender, Wilson in 1990 created a women's group known as "Pro-Wilson" to support him on issues such as abortion. Seymour has created "Women for Seymour."

If Seymour forces continue to follow the script, at some point they will raise questions about the financial dealings of Feinstein's banker-broker husband, Richard C. Blum, and allege potential conflict of interest with Feinstein's duties in the Senate.

But this is 1992, not 1990, and the campaign playing field is far different. Will the Wilson playbook work for Seymour, or will a strategy evolve over the months that bears a clear Seymour stamp?

For starters, Seymour's underdog status gives him a persona that is distinct from Wilson's.

In 1990, the Wilson campaign felt that it could go on the attack only after spending millions during an uncontested primary campaign to establish him in the minds of voters as an outstanding leader of substance as a state legislator, mayor of San Diego and U.S. senator for seven years.

By contrast, the lesser-known Seymour had to spend heavily in his primary contest on television ads just to boost his name identification. Even now, said Field Poll founder Mervin Field, "he's not on the (radar) screen. He hasn't made an impact." Also, Feinstein is better known and much better financed than she was in 1990.

Seymour is taking a more aggressive approach on women's issues, in part because Feinstein is using gender more aggressively than she did in 1990.

As he campaigned throughout California since the primary, Seymour attacked "this gender factor" by declaring: "To suggest, as Kathleen Brown has, as Dianne Feinstein has, as Barbara Boxer has, as many others have, that a woman is going to cast her vote on gender alone, I think is selling the women in California far, far short."

In fact, both Feinstein and Boxer, the Democratic nominee for the six-year Senate seat held by Democrat Alan Cranston, usually emphasize the economy and other issues during their speeches, adding that their gender is a major plus on issues of particular importance to women.

Although Seymour also supports abortion rights--as Wilson did in 1990--Feinstein is seeking the advantage by contending "I have always been 100% for choice," while Seymour opposed abortion as a member of the state Senate until 1989. Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata argues that Seymour's vote to confirm Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court is, in effect, an anti-abortion vote.

"He's never going to do enough to satisfy people who are pro-choice," Kuwata said.

Even a former Seymour political adviser, Eileen Padberg, a moderate Republican political consultant in Orange County, believes that Seymour's out-front attack on the gender issue is ill-advised, saying: "It's nothing he can win on."

Seymour tries to cope by portraying himself as an unfortunate captive of political timing and circumstance.

On a recent tour of California's agricultural heartland, he opened each talk by musing that perhaps he should be a flashier candidate with "a new hairstyle or some more colorful clothes." But Seymour added that his wife, Judy, tells him to forget the glamour stuff, saying: "Honey, no matter what you do, you'll never be another pretty face."

As the day progressed, farm leaders in his entourage began referring to the candidate as "Bulldog Seymour," prompting Seymour to crack: "I probably look like a bulldog, too."

In fact, Seymour does have attributes that the reserved Wilson lacks that could help him in an underdog campaign--an aggressive tenacity, doggedness, and the ability to flare in anger in a manner that lends a sense of passion to his campaign.

"If there is anyone who can do it, it's John Seymour," consultant Padberg said. "He'll work harder than anyone. John's a doer. He doesn't let a lot of grass grow under his feet."

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