Listening to the gubernatorial candidates, you'd think the most important question facing voters next is: Who's the more despicable--Jerry Brown or Pete Wilson?
Also: who's a clone? Lt. Gov. Gray Davis? Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren?
Lungren is trying to couple Democrats Davis and Brown like conjoined twins. Similarly, Davis is attempting to drape Wilson around Lungren.
Although former Gov. Brown was just elected mayor of liberal Oakland, he still has a negative image across California among conservatives and many moderates, says Lungren's pollster. Likewise, says Davis' pollster, while voters have sided with Republican Gov. Wilson on some heated issues, they really don't like the guy.
So we get into this guilt by association strategy with insinuations of evil influence. Davis was Brown's chief of staff roughly 20 years ago. Lungren has been attorney general all eight years Wilson has been governor.
Who cares, you ask? Well, answers Lungren, you should care if Davis appoints the same kinds of liberal judges that Brown did--judges like former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, whom voters ultimately booted off the bench. Davis may support the death penalty, Lungren says, but he helped Brown appoint anti-execution judges like Bird.
"It's legitimate for us to talk about that," Lungren told me last week, lunching on a ham and cheese sandwich in his office. "Gray has gone out and talked proudly about how he's pleased to take credit for appointments in the Brown administration. He suggests his administration would reflect the same sort of appointments.
"When you're trying to show your bona fides on fighting crime, it's legitimate for people to say, 'OK, we've heard your words, but what were your actions? What kind of people did you put on the bench?' "
And, as we'll no doubt be reminded, Davis and Bird were close enough that she presided over his wedding.
"If Lungren thinks he can beat Gray with Jerry Brown, we'll help finance his commercials," says one Davis strategist. "People will just shrug their shoulders."
Comments Davis: "People know who I am. . . . I'm endorsed by more police organizations than Dan Lungren."
Conversely, however, Davis is trying to tether Lungren to Wilson. People already seem in a mood for that: 56% of the voters in last Tuesday's election, according to a Times exit poll, said it's "time for a change to the Democratic Party" after 16 years of GOP governors.
"Wilson has been more divisive than any governor I've ever dealt with," Davis asserts. "Those [illegal immigration, affirmative action, union dues] initiatives were fights that didn't need to be waged. They left a bitter aftertaste. They were simply diversions from the principal work California has to get done.
"Lungren didn't sound the battle cry, but he fully enlisted in Wilson's army."
Responds Lungren, in what sounds like a Davis echo: "People know what I stand for. Look, I'm not Ronald Reagan, I'm not George Deukmejian, I'm not Pete Wilson. I'm nobody but Dan Lungren."
And he adds, "I didn't serve as chief of staff" to any of the three.
Voters also must resolve which candidate is paddling in the hallowed "mainstream."
"He's out of the mainstream and I'm very much in it," Davis claims. "I'm pro-choice [on abortion]. I'm for vigorously enforcing the assault weapons ban. I'm for aggressively standing up to tobacco. . . ."
Lungren has been criticized by both sides on assault guns--accused of being too soft and too tough. On tobacco, he has a suit pending against cigarette makers, but so does Davis.
He knows Davis is coming after him on abortion. And he realizes it's a critical issue for many women. "Believe me, I recognize that more than anybody else," he says. "I've been dealing with it longer."
Lungren's position: He's against abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother's life. But as governor, he'd be limited to three moves. He would "fight" to require parental consent for a minor daughter's abortion. He would try to ban taxpayer funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest or a life threat. And he would try to prohibit late term abortions except for a life threat.
"On those issues, I'm dead center in the mainstream," he contends.
The voters' decision probably will turn on whom they like and trust. Will supporters of abortion rights accept Lungren? Who's better on schools and the environment? Can Davis convince moderates that he's not a tax-and-spend liberal? "I've never voted for a tax increase and have no intention to as governor," he says.
Let's hope this doesn't turn on the lives and times of Pete and Jerry.