Gov. Pete Wilson has agreed to a Los Angeles radio debate today with Ron Unz, the wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was a political unknown before launching a late primary campaign challenge to the state's Republican chief executive.
The two candidates will face off on KABC radio for one hour beginning at 2 p.m. The debate will be moderated by radio host Michael Jackson.
Wilson's campaign spokesman said Thursday that the governor's decision to debate Unz was not a reaction to recent polls showing the challenger getting nearly one-third of the vote in hypothetical Republican primary matchups with Wilson.
The governor, in Washington to lobby for more federal funds, said squaring off with Unz fit into his "long tradition" of debating opponents.
The governor's top campaign strategist, George Gorton, said Wilson's decision to debate Unz in the primary will give him added credibility when he presses the Democratic nominee to debate him in the fall.
Gorton said he expects the Democratic front-runner, Treasurer Kathleen Brown, to be reluctant to face Wilson if they are the candidates in the general election.
"If she is refusing to debate and pointing the finger, she's not going to have much credibility," Gorton said.
Since entering the campaign, Unz has spent nearly $2 million of his own money. He has criticized Wilson as an immigrant-bashing demagogue who is taxing and spending the state to the brink of bankruptcy. In the process, Unz has gone from anonymity to 31% among likely Republican voters in a Los Angeles Times poll published today.
John Kurzweil, a spokesman for the Unz campaign, said the 32-year-old software company founder was delighted that Wilson had agreed to the joint appearance.
Meanwhile, Wilson reported that he raised and spent about $3.2 million between March 18 and May 21, leaving him with $3.3 million, according to a summary of his campaign finance report, which will be available today.
Brown's campaign said she had $1.2 million as of May 21 after raising $1.3 million and spending $3.8 million during the reporting period.
Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi did not release an official summary of his report, but aides said Garamendi raised about $1.3 million in contributions and loans during the period, including $500,000 he lent the campaign from his own funds. They said he has about $600,000 on hand for the final two weeks of the campaign.
Times staff writer Glenn Bunting contributed to this article from Washington.