Real Issues, Mr. Candidate

In the weeks leading up to the first of five gubernatorial debates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren should stipulate up front that Davis is not Jerry Brown and Lungren is not Pete Wilson. We know they're not, and it's pointless for each to try to stigmatize his opponent through past associations.

Voters do want to know how the candidates might actually help them make their lives better. Voters don't want to know who's tougher on crime or too liberal or too conservative. Those shorthand terms carry no meaning except for their partisan overtones. If the candidates cannot get beyond such primitive behavior, this will be a campaign of cliches and rhetoric, not an examination of the critical choices facing California.

In agreeing to the series of debates, Davis and Lungren now have the opportunity to make this perhaps the most enlightened general election campaign in modern California history. Success depends on the details of both content and format in the debates, as well as the wider campaign. The issues must be ones of real concern to California voters, not those promoted for momentary political advantage. The debates must get beyond superficialities such as whether to spend the current state budget surplus for an average tax break of $185 through repeal of the car tax.

Depth is important. In the typical "debate," answers are limited to a minute or two. That may require a candidate to be succinct--which can be admirable--but it also invites canned answers designed for political effect, not problem solving.

These are experienced candidates who know the issues. The state's problems are complex. The candidates should be comfortable in going past TV sound-bite time limits in giving an answer. A good moderator in such a format will keep the candidates on the subject and prevent the slippery insertion of personal attacks.

As for issues, voters clearly are concerned about public education and want to know what can be done to improve the quality of their schools. The debate must go beyond such isolated questions as the validity of vouchers, test scores or charter schools. The problem is far broader and deeper and extends to the fragmented manner in which education is administered and financed in the state.

Voters need to know what the candidates would do about California's crumbling infrastructure--the freeways and local roads, overcrowded airports, inadequately maintained parks, schools, college and university facilities--and the courts. How will California deal with problems of health care, housing, alcoholism, drugs and mental illness?

With the incidence of crime down, what law enforcement problems are priorities and how can they be fixed? What should be done about prison overcrowding? And don't ask what taxes a candidate might cut to satisfy some political constituency but rather how he would propose to reform California's archaic system of state and local government finance.

Perhaps the most critical issue of all is whether the state can develop a strategic approach to growth and development. How will California cope with a population of 50 million within a generation and provide the services that such a populace will demand, while maintaining social equilibrium, a decent environment and the famed California lifestyle? Can it be done?

Substantive debates in the general election campaign would put the focus on these and other issues, as did the Times-sponsored debate in the primary campaign. Neither candidate will have answers that satisfy everyone, but good debates can help voters decide who has the best grasp of the problems, who has a sense of how to solve them and who can provide the leadership needed to get things done. caption: Lungren and Davis: The question is what can be done for California, not who's too conservative or liberal.

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