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Candidates for Mayor Make Splash : Politics: Aquatic antics turn out to be a drop in the bucket as Navarro and Golding follow seaside stunts with some familiar rhetoric.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The next time anyone wonders why Southern California so often provides fodder for the nation’s stand-up comics, a review of Wednesday’s San Diego mayoral debate could help provide the answer.

In one of the more unorthodox moments seen in this or any other recent campaign, candidate Peter Navarro swam nearly a mile to a waterfront restaurant in La Jolla, briefly toweled off and then, clad in shorts and a sweat shirt, shivered his way through his opening remarks in a debate with Susan Golding on KSDO radio.

Don’t expect to see this scene repeated anytime soon on “Meet the Press.”

“People all over the country might just say, ‘Well, that’s California,’ ” said Golding’s campaign manager, Dan McAllister.

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The debate’s host, former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, was already on the air when Navarro, his wife and several aquatic supporters emerged from the surf, about half an hour behind schedule--much to the consternation of Hedgecock’s nervous staff.

Normally when a candidate is running late, traffic is considered a likely culprit. This time, however, speculation jokingly turned toward the tides, sharks or jellyfish released offshore by the Golding camp.

Several pro-Golding swimmers with slogans written on their bodies beat Navarro’s group to shore in a bit of campaign one-upmanship. When someone asked why Golding was not among them, McAllister quipped that she had “walked across the water” earlier.

Navarro, meanwhile, complained about the Golding team’s “silly stunt"--a somewhat unusual remark for a dripping-wet mayoral candidate in a Speedo--and charged that he had been bumped by one of the rival swimmers.

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“There was a point to it,” said Navarro, who held a news conference before the swim at which he emphasized offshore sewage spills’ potential for damaging the local economy by hampering tourism. “I was trying to dramatize the linkage between the environment and the economy in the best possible way. Besides, what could be more San Diego than swimming the La Jolla swim course? I think most people would say, ‘Hey, that’s great.’ ”

It says much about the debate and the mayoral campaign itself, however, that Navarro’s arrival by sea overshadowed the substance of the two-hour forum.

During the debate, Navarro and Golding largely repeated familiar positions on a wide range of issues, as well as renewed their attempts to rivet voters’ attention on their opponent’s potential vulnerabilities.

Navarro, whose political outsider status is a crucial asset in a year of widespread anti-incumbent sentiment among voters, reiterated that point on several occasions.

“I’m a professional economist; my opponent is a professional politician,” he said. “I’m an outsider, Susan’s an insider. . . . I’m asking the people to give me a chance to do better. I believe I can.”

Asked to distinguish her candidacy from Navarro’s, Golding pointed to her “excellent record in fighting crime” by, among other things, helping to nearly double the number of jail beds in the county.

Golding also cited her endorsement by past and present leaders of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce as evidence of her commitment to keeping San Diego “business-friendly” and said she would strive to decentralize the city bureaucracy. Navarro’s proposals, she contended, would move the city in the other direction.

“I’m the candidate in this race with the experience,” she said. “My opponent has a record of failure. Every single proposal he has made has been declared unconstitutional or rejected by the voters. We’ve got to get the economy back on its feet. I have a record of having done it . . . and it’s not just theoretical.”

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Navarro responded by arguing that, because Golding, not he, has been in local office during most of the past decade, she is the one who should share the blame for San Diego’s economic and other problems.

“The definition of an experienced politician is somebody who creates a problem (during his) term, and then calls a press conference to solve it,” said Navarro, a business school professor. “And I think that’s the kind of leadership we have here in San Diego.

“I just wish we had some politicians in this city . . . who would stand up and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. It’s my responsibility. The buck stops here. I’m the captain of this ship, and I’m going down with it.’ We don’t have those kind of politicians.”

Questions over Golding’s apparent misquoting of Navarro earlier this week also resurfaced in the debate when Navarro told radio listeners to take her attacks on his record “with a grain of salt.”

At a news conference Monday, Golding recited a series of quotes purportedly from Navarro that she said contradict positions he has taken in the campaign, and she called the shifts “one of the most unbelievable political flip-flops in history.”

One sentence in a newspaper story Golding attributed to Navarro, however, was a paraphrase, not a direct quote.

Another Navarro comment singled out by Golding did not appear in the newspaper story she initially identified as its source, but rather as a note in a lengthy magazine article on growth controls co-authored by Navarro. Moreover, that quotation, which states that “controlling the rate of job growth can, in fact, control population growth,” appears to be an objective observation of a market force, not, as Golding implied, a point of advocacy on Navarro’s part.

“These are his words, and this is all part of the extrapolation of the thought in that article,” Golding campaign manager McAllister said in an interview. “We didn’t invent it or make it up. We have nothing to be apologetic about.”

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Navarro found that explanation unpersuasive.

“All it shows is that the techniques she’s using vary from outright fabrication to errors of omission to confusing prescriptive with descriptive analysis,” he said. “I’m sure this won’t be the last time it happens.”


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