A Last Trip Through the Tried and True

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

With hope and prayers, the 1998 primary campaign raced into the final 48 hours Sunday as candidates scurried from churches to shopping centers to neighborhood sidewalks--anywhere a likely voter might be found.

It was politicking distilled to its very essence.

The major candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate fell back on tried and tested themes and took their campaigns down well-rutted roads, where they pitched to their parties' most faithful supporters.

For Democrats, that meant touring African American churches in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. For Republicans, it meant plying the Southern California suburbs and the vast Central Valley.

In the race for governor, Democrat Al Checchi pursued backers one handshake at a time. Jane Harman wooed women voters. Gray Davis, the front-runner, confidently polished his attack lines for the fall.

Republican Dan Lungren, meanwhile, took a breather, going horseback riding near his home outside Sacramento.

In the Senate contest, Republican Darrell Issa motored north through California's agricultural heartland while rival Matt Fong risked gastrointestinal disaster during a bit of sidewalk stumping. Incumbent Barbara Boxer, a lock for the Democratic nomination, ignored them both as she campaigned in the Bay Area on children's issues.

It was all a day's work in a frenzy of campaigning that saw candidates--literally--tramping from the mountains (or at least the foothills of the San Gabriels) to the valleys to the ocean.

Davis Goes to Church--4 Times

Lt. Gov. Davis began his day by going to church--or rather churches, four in all.

"We need a governor who can bring us together," Davis told the boisterous throng at the 8:30 a.m. service at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles' West Adams neighborhood. "We've had enough of division, we've had enough of pitting people against each other."

Except, it seems, pitting Democrats against Republicans.

Sunday afternoon, speaking to a backyard picnic crowd in the San Fernando Valley, Davis resumed his harsh attacks on GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, in a strategy apparently intended to taint Lungren in a sort of guilt by association.

"We all have our dark side," he said. "And Wilson likes to fan the flames of discontent, anti-Semitism and bigotry. That doesn't educate one child. . . . Pete Wilson has been one of the worst governors of the 20th century."

Asked later for examples of impeachable offenses--an accusation leveled Saturday--or of anti-Semitism, Davis smiled. "Well, sometimes you take a little political license in these campaigns," he said.

Davis' mood was clearly buoyant as he basked in the hazy sunshine and the polls suggesting that the Democratic nomination is his to lose. He told a group of about 75 Democratic activists and local schoolteachers that he is so certain of winning the primary Tuesday that the margin could be 15 points above his closest competitor.

"We are on the verge of a great victory," he crowed. "I am proud of you for standing with me when I was in third place and when I was in second place, and now that I'm in first place I plan to stay here."

Checchi Targets Key Voters

Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Checchi spent the last Sunday of his 18-month effort waging a campaign that stood California political orthodoxy on its head. He trouped to Latino, African American and low-income white areas, targeting those considered least likely to turn out but upon whom his success depends. He drew a self-portrait of himself as the well-meaning multimillionaire independent of special interests--the theme that powered his early success in public opinion polls.

In stops at five churches, Checchi repeatedly condemned the three other major candidates in the race--without mentioning their names--for embracing a cut in the vehicle registration fee, instead of using the state's $4-billion surplus to improve education and rebuild infrastructure.

"I might not be a professional politician, but I am not blind," he told worshipers during his visit to First AME Church. "We do not have a surplus of classrooms. We do not have a surplus of teachers. We do not have a surplus of educated children. We do not have a surplus of books. We do not have a surplus of computers. . . . The only thing I see is a surplus of jails."

Despite his underdog status in the polls, the candidate seemed loose, particularly as the day progressed. At El Mercado in East Los Angeles, where he ventured after the churches, Checchi won rousing applause from shoppers and diners. (He has spent more time advertising on Spanish-language media than any previous candidate.)

At one point, Checchi bounded into the crowd, shirt sleeves rolled up, and shook hands with table after table of diners who were listening to mariachi music.

Emboldened, he trotted over to an adjacent room and leaped upon the stage, belting out a rousing verse of "Guantanamera" before leaving to shake more hands and kiss a few babies.

Harman Talks of Healing

In the Bay Area, Rep. Harman urged women and minorities to make her the first female governor in California history.

At the 108-year-old Beth Eden Baptist Church, the Torrance congresswoman urged parishioners to elect a governor who can "heal the community and nourish our children."

"That's the kind of governor I want to be, the kind of governor I know how to be because I am the mother of four children," she said, drawing applause with her gender-specific vision for the next governor and what her priorities should be.

"She must reach for every child in every classroom in this state," Harman preached. "She must keep our children out of gangs and our gangs out of schools."

Meanwhile, in the neck-and-neck race for the GOP Senate nomination, state Treasurer Fong took to the streets for a second straight day of old-fashioned hand-pumping, starting in Bellflower and continuing in Old Pasadena. There he perched upon a patio table with a pepperoni slice from Lamonica's N.Y. Pizza and handed out a few brochures.

He ran into a teenager he'd once counseled about his alma mater, the Air Force Academy, and bummed a yellow sour candy from 8-year-old Joanne Ho, who'd just seen "Godzilla" with her friend Annie Kuwabara, 7, and Annie's dad.

Fong made small talk. To tourists from outside the state: "Spend lots of your money here." To kids: "Come visit me on your field trip to Washington." And to locals: "Go through your address book and tell all your friends to vote for me."

At Temptations, a sweet shop, a display of candy apples was attracting more attention than the retail politicking--even from the candidate. Despite an upset stomach from Saturday's chili-cheese fries in Hermosa Beach, Fong was determined to try the $4.99 El Nino: a Granny Smith smothered in caramel, rolled in marshmallows, then drizzled with white and milk chocolate.

Fong called it "the mother of all apples." He took a bite over the protest of a campaign aide. Mmmm.

His rival Issa spent the day stumping in the Central and Sacramento valleys, emphasizing strongly conservative themes to "energize" GOP loyalists and grabbing small bits of local television coverage where he could.

Issa continued a theme he first sounded Friday when the latest batch of bad publicity buffeted his candidacy: that he has been victimized by a last-minute campaign of vilification by Democrat incumbent Boxer.

Issa alleges that recent newspaper stories questioning his business and military background were leaked by the senator's camp to defeat him.

"Two weeks ago a lot of people thought I had this campaign wrapped up," Issa told GOP workers at the local party headquarters in Modesto.

"I was then victimized not by my Republican opponent but by Barbara Boxer, who dug up lies. . . . I'm the candidate she fears."

Boxer, for her part, remained serenely above the fray.

At east Oakland's True Vine Missionary Baptist Church, the senator sang and clapped with the congregation, then spoke of her dream of a world in which no child is unloved or abandoned.

"If I could wave a magic wand and do one thing it would be to bless every child with a loving family," she said, to applause and amens before moving on to a child-care rally in San Francisco with Mayor Willie Brown.

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Times political writer Cathleen Decker and staff writers Faye Fiore, Dave Lesher, Tony Perry and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.

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