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GOP Pins ’94 Hopes on Crime Issue : Politics: State Republican convention closes in hope that anti-crime sentiment will reelect Gov. Pete Wilson. Party wants to break Democrats’ grip on Senate.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

California Republicans concluded an unusually harmonious convention Sunday, united by hopes of using the crime issue to reelect Gov. Pete Wilson and of breaking the Democrats’ 23-year lock on the Legislature.

The 668 delegates wrapped up their business by shouting approval of a resolution applauding Wilson’s “tireless effort to bring order and justice to our streets” and accusing Democrats of getting tough on crime only after it became a hot campaign issue.

Democrats “are stumbling over each other trying to reposition themselves as tough on crime,” Tirso del Junco of Los Angeles, the state party chairman, said in an address to delegates.

“Even Kathleen Brown and John Garamendi are trying to pump up their liberal, soft-on-crime images,” said Del Junco, referring to the two major Democrats competing for the right to challenge Wilson this fall.

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Del Junco said the crime issue was instrumental in Republicans winning six of seven special legislative elections during 1993. Those victories have helped boost GOP hopes for rebounding from a 1992 election debacle in which Democrats took both U.S. Senate seats as well as California’s electoral votes for president for the first time since 1964.

“Working together, searching for those things that unite us rather than those that divide us, catapulted us back to victory in 1993,” Del Junco said. “These same ideas will bring us success this year.”

The GOP’s next opportunity comes April 12, when longtime state Senate leader David A. Roberti of Van Nuys faces a recall election. The campaign was forced by a coalition called Citizens Against Corruption and financed primarily by gun owner groups angered by the Democrat’s sponsorship of a law banning the sale of assault rifles.

The party formally supported Roberti’s recall in a resolution adopted Sunday that claimed that his stance on gun control “is nothing more than a smoke screen to hide his opposition to California’s death penalty and its support of the ACLU’s criminal-coddling policies.”

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The California Democratic Party promptly responded in a statement issued by Chairman Bill Press, who said the GOP had allowed itself “to be taken over by right-wing gun zealots.”

“For the Republican Party to take sides with a band of yahoos that advocate the right to own military-style assault weapons isn’t just irresponsible partisan politics,” Press said. “It’s political arrogance.”

A separate GOP resolution declared that the right to bear arms “supersedes the power and authority of any government.”

Republicans spoke out Sunday on a variety of other issues, with a resolution on abortion sparking some controversy because it supports the principle of “the fundamental individual right to life for the unborn.” Some delegates protested the wording because it did not provide for a mother’s rights if she risked death in childbirth. An attempt to amend the measure failed.

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But being tough on crime and criminals was the overriding theme throughout the three-day-long meeting at a hotel near San Francisco International Airport.

In his keynote address Saturday, Wilson chided Democrats for being slow to react on issues such as the death penalty, drive-by shootings, victims’ rights and mandatory life prison terms for three-time felons.

Wilson asked rhetorically: “When we were fighting to protect the state’s corrections budget and keep dangerous criminals behind bars, where were they?

“To lead the war on crime, you’ve at least got to be on the battlefield,” he said.

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Wilson said the GOP has an unprecedented opportunity to elect more Republicans in 1994. In particular, he held out hopes for seizing control of the 40-member state Senate for the first time since 1971. The GOP can do this by holding all its seats at stake this year, and by winning five of the 14 Democratic Senate seats up for grabs, he said.

The governor was less optimistic about winning a majority of the 80 seats in the Assembly, saying only that 1994 offers the chance of giving “more support” to Assembly GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. Democrats increased their margin in the Assembly in 1992 in spite of a realignment of legislative districts that was considered more favorable to Republicans. The Democrats’ current edge is 46 to 33 with one vacancy.

The GOP also faces a formidable task in achieving domination of statewide offices. Republicans hold only two of the seven partisan posts: Wilson as governor and Dan Lungren as attorney general.

But Democrats will not have the advantage of incumbency as they did in 1990. No Democrats are seeking reelection to posts they hold. Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy is retiring, Controller Gray Davis is running for lieutenant governor, former Secretary of State March Fong Eu resigned to accept an ambassadorial appointment, and Treasurer Brown and Insurance Commissioner Garamendi are giving up those jobs to run for governor.

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The other statewide post, superintendent of public instruction, is officially nonpartisan.

Times staff writer Amy Wallace contributed to this story.


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