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NEWS ANALYSIS : Brown Has Lead, but Also Has Problems : Politics: Despite her advantage, the challenger faces a tougher task than Gov. Pete Wilson. Attacking the incumbent won’t be enough. More voters must think favorably of her.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As a steamy summer slouches toward Labor Day, Democrat Kathleen Brown faces a nettlesome truism of politics in her quest to become the 37th governor of California: “You can’t beat something with nothing.”

That rule says a challenger has to do more than just attack the record of an incumbent to defeat him or her, even an incumbent who has been as unpopular as Brown’s foe in the Nov. 8 general election, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Although recent polls have given her a small lead over Wilson, political experts believe the challenge remains for Brown, the 48-year-old state treasurer, to convince voters that she is a more acceptable alternative than another four years of Wilson.

Brown insists the groundwork has been laid and the process is under way. And she has 2 1/2 months left to work with. Many prospective voters will only begin paying attention in September or later.

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But the burden unmistakably rests on Brown at the moment. Wilson aides believe all their candidate has to do is to continue doing what he has been doing--be the dogged governor working in the trenches, and avoid any major errors.

Veteran California pollster and analyst Mervin Field put it this way: “If the public was voting on Wilson today, it would be 2-to-1 ‘no.’ He’d be out. But we don’t elect or unelect candidates that way. It comes down to an alternative. And so far, they’re voting ‘no’ on Wilson, but not yet voting ‘yes’ on Brown.”

The problem of defining herself to voters is a complex one for Brown. She has broad name identification as the daughter of one former governor, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, 1959-67, and the sister of another, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., 1975-83. Her father is remembered fondly by older voters, but brother Jerry is still often derided by critics as the liberal “Gov. Moonbeam.”

Beyond that, most Californians don’t know much about her, and her own public service--five years on the Los Angeles school board and a term as state treasurer--has not made her a commanding presence in California.

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Two years after she began campaigning for governor, and national reporters began writing about the continuation of a Brown political dynasty, many Californians still tend to think of her as Pat Brown’s daughter or Jerry’s sister.

Statewide candidates generally introduce themselves and define themselves to voters during the primary election campaign. Ideally, it should be done before the opponent does the defining with attack ads.

In effect, the candidate says through words or pictures, or both: “This is who I am. This is what I’ve done. This is what I stand for. And this is my vision of what I want for California.”

Wilson did this in 1990 by projecting himself as a compassionate moderate, by outlining a series of preventive programs that would pay big dividends from an initial investment. One example was universal prenatal care for pregnant women. Another proposed giving all children health screening and services from their first days in public school for early detection of problems that might impair their education later on.

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His Democratic opponent in 1990, Dianne Feinstein, was familiar in Northern California as the former mayor of San Francisco, but less known in the south. She overcame that largely by running the now-legendary “grabber” ad on television early in the primary.

“Forged from tragedy,” the narrator intoned as newsreel footage showed a Board of Supervisors President Feinstein solemnly announcing the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

The commercial then talked about how Feinstein took charge of a troubled city as the new mayor, but also how she related to ordinary people in need. “Tough, but caring,” was the message. Feinstein’s poll standing rocketed. She won a tough Democratic primary election by a surprisingly large margin.

But Brown did not face that kind of challenge and has not done the sort of detailed biographical commercial--usually a full-minute ad--that challengers typically run. While breezing to a Democratic primary victory, she ran one 30-second biographical ad, but it was overshadowed by a flurry of negative commercials the week before the June 8 primary.

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Since the primary, Brown’s television campaign has consisted largely of a relentless attack on the Wilson record. It was only last week that Brown began to air a positive message, and began to sketch in her background, in two ads that promise to restore to Californians “the fair share that middle-class families deserve.”

Pollster Field said that Brown’s celebrity status and “incredible media focus” early in the campaign may have done her a disservice.

“She may have suffered from being so far ahead and thinking it was easy. It’s not so easy,” Field said.

The full Brown-definition phase is still to come, Clint Reilly, Brown’s campaign manager, has said.

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Pending that, the political wisdom in California this month has been that Brown needed a “spark” of some sort to draw attention to her campaign and generate support. Brown contends that the process is well under way.

“Maybe they’re looking for the spark in all the wrong places,” Brown said in an interview last week.

Brown said her effort will build incrementally between now and Election Day rather than burst forth like an explosion.

“I think it’s a prairie fire,” Brown said last week with a grin and a lusty laugh, alluding to a newspaper report that likened some of her themes to those used by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1966 to drive her father from the governorship. Reagan had likened his campaign to a prairie fire of change sweeping across California.

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Even so, one well-connected Sacramento Democrat who asked not to be identified said, “I think she’s in deep trouble.”

One reason, this expert explained, is that Brown allowed herself to be lured into a one-on-one battle this summer with Wilson on crime issues--a struggle that many think Brown cannot come close to winning.

“He baits her and she takes the bait,” the official said. “She’s got to stop doing that.”

Field disagrees. Crime is one area in which the public still believes government can be effective, he said, adding that “she can’t yield” on the issue.

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Brown said she believes she has effectively neutralized any Wilson advantage on crime.

“This is the best shot he can take,” she said. “If this is the best he’s got and he can’t whip me in August. . . .”

Recent polls rate the governor’s race as basically neck and neck. At one point last year, Brown enjoyed an illusory 23-point lead over Wilson. The shift in fortune has made Brown into a seeming underdog.

A year ago, reporters were challenging Wilson’s campaign manager, George Gorton, to tell them just how he planned to save Wilson’s political skin in November, 1994. Now they call to ask what Brown could do to win, or what sort of Wilson miscue could cause him to lose.

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“What a change in conversation a year makes,” Gorton said with a happy sigh.

Wilson’s main task now is to keep plugging away as governor, to do what he has been doing without making a major mistake, Field and others said. Wilson has a reputation as a gritty, dogged campaigner with a veteran staff not prone to making mistakes.

The Sacramento Democrat who believes Brown is in trouble said Wilson increasingly is being seen “as a sympathetic figure who has been trying hard” in spite of recession, riots, fires, floods and earthquakes.

To counter that sort of thinking, said William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Brown must convince voters that under Wilson, California has fallen into general decline--in the economy, education and other areas of life--but that there can be good times again with the proper leadership.

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“She has to be upbeat,” Schneider said. “Challengers don’t get very far talking about how awful things are. The way she has to do it is talking about pride in the state and determination to turn the direction around.”

That, in fact, is what Brown has begun to do. In speeches and in her most recent television ads, Brown lamented middle-class families not “getting their fair share” under Republican leadership. She promised to cut the bureaucracy, reduce welfare benefits and better safeguard the taxpayers’ money.

Then, she added, “I’ll use the savings for better schools and colleges, job creation and police--the fair share middle-class families deserve.”

Wilson aide Gorton contends that this broad appeal is a strategic mistake. Brown needs to solidify her natural liberal Democratic base first before reaching out to voters in the center and toward the right, he said. But then, the Wilson strategy is to tar Brown as a liberal and to turn the contest into the sort of ideological struggle a Democrat cannot win.

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Democrats doubt that liberals will vote for Wilson. But there is concern those voters might stay home on Nov. 8 unless motivated. Bill Press, Democratic state chairman, said the party has budgeted $30 million for an unprecedented drive to get potential Democrats to register to vote and to field a vote-by-mail campaign and a massive get-out-the-vote drive on Election Day.

Democrats had virtually no such effort in 1990, when Feinstein lost to Wilson by 3.5% of the vote. One target, Press said, will be an estimated 1.4 million Democratic women who voted in 1992, but not in 1990 or in the 1994 party primary.

In recent days, Brown also recalled positive aspects of the governorships of her father and her brother.

Her family ties have been something of a wash for Kathleen Brown. Republicans will concede her the residual good feelings about her aged, ailing father, but not without trying to stain her with the flaky reputation of Jerry Brown.

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Speaking in Ventura last week, Brown proudly recalled her father as a builder for California’s future and for the middle class--schools, the colleges and universities and the freeways. Indeed, she acknowledged, her brother put a stop to that and proclaimed the era of limits. But the Jerry Brown Administration also should be remembered as one that brought diverse groups of Californians into the political process for the first time and empowered them to solve problems, she said.

“And my job,” she added, “is the job of bringing and weaving together those traditions in the spirit of the limits of our resources, whether they are natural resources or fiscal resources.

“We’ve got to manage them differently . . . to be able to ensure that our kids get a good education, that our people have the opportunity for good jobs, and that once again we can call our communities safe and reclaim them for ourselves and our children. And that’s what this campaign is all about.”


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