Lungren Undeterred by Doubters


Dan Lungren is holding court in the great wide nowhere, presenting the truths he holds self-evident as he marches relentlessly--and conspicuously unopposed--to the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Ending the state’s perpetual water wars? No problem. Finding common ground on gun control? Piece of cake. Hanging onto the governor’s seat after 16 years of Republican rule? A little tougher, perhaps, but not terribly.

It sounds so effortless, so manifestly simple, so obvious. Listen to how Lungren explains his presence way up here in this far-off corner of California:


“If you want bread, you go to the bakery,” he tells the Modoc County Record after lunch with the locals at the Alturas Garden Club. “If you want votes, go to where the voters are.”

The reality, of course, is that trees vastly outnumber voters hereabout and the issues Lungren so blithely dispatches are hardly as soluble as he suggests. But if Lungren has shown a mastery of anything in his fledgling gubernatorial campaign, it is presenting at least the aura of inevitability.

Since the moment of his reelection to a second term as state attorney general in November 1994, Lungren has been the prohibitive favorite to top the state GOP ticket in November 1998. He has scared off any serious primary opposition, leaving him loads of money in the bank and plenty of time to burn between now and the start of the general election campaign roughly a year hence.

“There’s a great satisfaction that we have essentially a nominee selected and we aren’t going to have to have a bitter, costly primary unless something very, very dramatic and unforeseen occurs,” said Larry Thomas, a longtime GOP activist and former advisor to Gov. Pete Wilson.

At the same time, however, there is a persistent undercurrent of apprehension within state Republican circles--a concern about Lungren and his campaign team that no amount of the candidate’s self-confidence can overcome.

“He’s unproven,” said veteran GOP strategist Allen Hoffenblum, voicing a sentiment widely whispered by other Republican insiders.


“People are questioning, ‘OK, Dan, can you do it?’ ”

Lungren, needless to say, replies vigorously in the affirmative--and seems more than a little put out by the question. “There’s nobody talking about running for governor who’s run before,” Lungren says, with the exception of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1990--”who I understand lost.”

“Evidently,” Lungren concludes, “everyone is untested by that particular standard.”

Certainly the 50-year-old Lungren is a more deft, skillful campaigner than Democrats would like to think. His enormous self-assurance translates into an easy, affable manner, suggesting that he is utterly delighted to be, say, in the drab basement of the Hotel Mt. Lassen explaining for the umpteenth time his vision of “a true grass-roots campaign” to a gathering of 30 potential recruits.

Nor is Lungren quite the “right-wing freakoid”--to borrow one of the more overripe descriptions--that Democrats are trying to portray. He has supported some gun-control measures, steered clear of overheated immigration rhetoric and alienated some of his fellows in the anti-abortion camp by failing to more ardently push their view.

In fact, a bigger problem for Lungren may be that he is a remarkably unknown quantity to many California voters, notwithstanding his 10 years in Congress, 6 1/2 years as attorney general and relentless campaigning these past three years for governor.

A Field Poll conducted in mid-May found that roughly a third of those surveyed statewide had no opinion of Lungren, good or bad--including 30% of the Republicans interviewed.

“People basically know that he’s attorney general,” said Geri Byrne, a member of the GOP Central Committee in distant Modoc County. “And some may know he’s running for governor.”


To Lungren’s great advantage, he has the luxury of spending these next several months traveling the state unimpeded by any primary opponent, introducing himself in the most positive light he can.

With a map showing every In-N-Out burger stand in California and aides monitoring his Pepsi intake (too much caffeine gives him an irregular heartbeat), Lungren has set out to visit all 58 California counties before the year is through. It is something he pledged to do the first time he ran for attorney general in 1990, so this marks his second statewide circuit. At each stop, Lungren meets privately with the local sheriff and district attorney, then uses breakfast, lunch and “after 5 o’clock time” to attend political functions.

About two dozen locals awaited his recent stop at the Alturas Garden Club, its window frames gaily painted pink and two card tables inside arrayed with homemade sandwiches and a chocolate Bundt cake decorated with tiny American flags.

As a rickety fan wobbled perilously overhead, Lungren held forth for nearly an hour, using generic questions (Why are politicians so partisan?) and highly specific ones (What about that local landfill?) to make larger points about sticking to principle and fighting bureaucratic arrogance.

He disarmed a hostile question on gun control by touting mandatory sentencing legislation to curb “gun abuse” and offered one of his few specific proposals--school vouchers--as a way to improve public education.

For the most part, Lungren tends to find safe harbor in a series of airy statements that beg little disagreement. On water policy, for example, he allowed as how “we can get people together to come up with whatever is going to be our plan for the next 30 to 40 years.”


During a stop at Susanville’s KSUE radio, Lungren was asked to name some of his likely appointees as governor. He solemnly pledged to tap “the very best talents available” from around the state.

Challenged later about his lack of specificity, Lungren retorted, “I don’t hear anyone else” offering more substantive answers.

“Part of the dynamics of a statewide race for governor . . . is to help focus on the most important issues,” he said in an interview. “Once you’ve gained a focus, you discuss them.

“If I start talking about all these things in detail now, you in the press will lose interest very quickly. By the time I’m talking about it in the important part of the campaign, you’ll say it’s old news, old hat.”

But the lack of definition is troubling to certain constituencies Lungren can ill afford to ignore, namely the state business community and some of California’s top Republican donors.

Recently, Wilson blessed Lungren with his precious contributor list, a benediction the attorney general ardently sought.


Still, “traditional Republican money-givers are quite concerned,” said one longtime party strategist. “They don’t know Dan and they don’t know his people very well.”

Most of the worries reflect doubt over whether Lungren and his campaign team, led by his younger brother, Brian, are fully conversant in the differences between running a winning race for attorney general and waging a successful campaign for governor.

“There is another stratosphere in this game, which is top-of-the-ticket statewide races,” said one veteran of Wilson’s winning campaigns. “And some guys just don’t fly at 40,000 feet.”

Democrats discovered that phenomenon to their chagrin in 1994. State Treasurer Kathleen Brown--another politician who people thought could not miss--stumbled badly in her quest for greater glory when she was swamped in her bid for governor.

But Lungren, characteristically confident, has little truck for the hand-wringers and second-guessers who tend to fill the vacuum during these lull periods.

“I always find it interesting [that] people who make those attacks from the outside know nothing about how I operate or the type of people I’m working with,” he said. “Last time I checked, I got 4.4 million votes and won by a margin of 2.4 million”--actually it was 1.2 million--in his 1994 reelection campaign. “That’s considered a landslide by any definition.”