The intensity of California's race for governor escalated this week, with businessman Al Checchi launching the first television commercials that attack his two Democratic opponents.
One ad criticizes Rep. Jane Harman of Torrance and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis for not seeking a cut in auto insurance rates and not endorsing a competency test for teachers--although both insist they have.
A second ad targets some of Harman's congressional votes to cut the federal budget deficit in part by trimming benefits for senior citizens.
More broadly, however, the two commercials signal a turning point in the race for governor--ending a period of candidate introductions and beginning the first phase of aggressive jockeying.
"From the point of view of the Checchi campaign . . . it is now 10 weeks [until the primary election] and it is time to begin drawing distinctions between Al Checchi . . . and the three other candidates," said Darry Sragow, Checchi's lead strategist.
Last week, a public opinion poll reported that Harman had zoomed from obscurity to a narrow lead over the other Democrats. The change was the reverse of the same poll's finding a month earlier when Davis was the leader and Harman was last.
Such a rapid and dramatic shift made the candidates anxious when they appeared together for the first time last weekend at the state Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles. All three traded jabs, with Davis making the most pointed criticisms about whether his rivals were "true Democrats."
But television is the most influential forum in California politics. So when Checchi began broadcasting his attack commercials during the Academy Awards program Monday evening, the simmering confrontations moved for the first time into the living rooms of millions of voters.
Political observers were not surprised. It is a classic strategy for campaigns to finally attack when one candidate surges ahead and threatens to break from the pack.
But Checchi's rivals were quick to remind him that he was the one who has repeatedly pledged that he would run a campaign based on issues--not attacks.
"I'll take my chances on a positive message," Checchi said in a radio interview in October. "I would rather lose running on the issues . . . than prostitute myself."
Sragow said Tuesday that the latest ads do not violate Checchi's earlier pledges because they speak only about voting records and issues and are not personal attacks.
But Checchi's rivals were fuming Tuesday because they believe that the commercials misrepresent their records or positions.
One commercial charges that Harman and Davis "oppose the Checchi education plan" without saying that the two Democrats have offered their own education reform plans. More specifically, the Checchi ad says Harman and Davis have "no plan for competency testing for teachers."
Sragow acknowledges that both Harman and Davis have supported new programs that would evaluate the performance of public school teachers. In fact, Davis and Checchi have both suggested that teachers be tested in their core subjects every five years.
But Sragow said Davis does not refer to his testing program as "mandatory." Therefore, he said, he is suspicious whether Davis would follow through.
"That is code to the teachers union that he is not going to do anything," Sragow said.
A heated Garry South, manager of Davis' campaign, responded with a profanity. "They have no idea what they are talking about," he said. "This test would be used to see if they ought to be kept or they ought to go."
The same commercial also complains that Harman and Davis have not called for a cut in auto insurance rates as Checchi has. Checchi's opponents say, however, that's not because it is not a good idea, it's just not within a governor's power.
"We have never opposed a cut in auto insurance--are we crazy?" asked South. "We just think that he is pandering because it is not within his power."
Checchi acknowledges that such authority lies with the state insurance commissioner, whom he says he would petition for the change if he is elected.
The commercial that targets Harman raises three votes she cast in the House of Representatives--two in 1993 and one last year. The votes were all intended to reduce spending. Checchi's ads focus on the cuts aimed at programs for the elderly such as Medicare and Social Security.
Last year's vote was to recalculate the consumer price index, a change that would have reduced cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits.
In 1993, Harman voted once with President Clinton on a budget that was opposed by all House Republicans and narrowly passed. Later, she was among just four California Democrats to favor an unsuccessful budget amendment opposed by Clinton.
Checchi's ad also claims that Harman "voted to increase the power of the IRS over seniors." Sragow said the claim stems from a provision of the budget amendment that would have made income tax information available to hospitals so they could determine the eligibility of benefit applicants.