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Why Lungren, So Far, Has Only Attracted Republicans

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV</i>

In 1992, Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Republican, lost his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate to conservative Bruce Herschensohn. Smarting from his defeat, Campbell launched the successful campaign for the open primary, the first to be held in June. He wanted to give moderate Republicans and Democrats and independent voters a voice in the GOP primary, which might make it easier to nominate centrists like himself.

Recent polls, however, suggest that the state Republican Party is still having difficulty broadening its appeal. A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) revealed numbers that, by themselves, should shake up the GOP. There is strong evidence that Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, faces a daunting task in expanding his appeal this fall.

In the survey, Lungren attracted 23% of likely voters in the open-primary match-up, compared with a combined Democratic total of 49% for Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman. A Field poll, released last week, pegged Lungren’s open-primary support at 27%. His Democratic rivals polled 47% of the likely vote.

Most significant, in neither poll nor survey did Lungren attract his party’s registration, estimated at 39% by the PPIC. In addition, the PPIC survey shows Democratic gubernatorial candidates drawing 28% of the GOP vote, and 42% of independents. Lungren’s cross-over vote is anemic. He pulls only 4% of the Democrats, 9% of independents. The Field poll reveals a similar trend, in which 22% of Republicans cross over to vote for a Democratic candidate but only 6% of the Democrats move to Lungren.

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Things could certainly change. Some GOP cross-overs may be mischief makers and will return to the fold when the contest really counts in November. Lungren has begun to air TV ads earlier than he planned. The Field poll results show the ads already may have begun to bring some GOP strays home. It also suggests that Lungren may have benefited from the barrage of Democratic negative attacks, launched primarily by Checchi against Harman.

Still, the GOP is having real problems attracting women. The PPIC identified 38% of the women it surveyed as registered Republicans--and only 16% of all women supported Lungren. By contrast, 51% of the women respondents were registered Democrats, and Democratic candidates drew 50% of women voters.

Clearly, the GOP’s anti-abortion stance, echoed by Lungren, continues to dampen female support for the party. An April Los Angeles Times poll asked whether respondents would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who is against abortion. Sixty percent of the women surveyed indicated they would be less likely to vote for an anti-abortion candidate. Only 45% of Republicans, men and women, held that view.

It is also no secret that Republicans need to augment their black and Latino support. But the state party won’t make significant inroads among minorities in the near future.

Blacks long have been Democratic loyalists, but Latino voters could be up for grabs. Latino views on social issues, ranging from abortion rights to school prayer, tend to resonate with the Republican Party’s positions. The PPIC survey disclosed that nearly one-third of Latino voters consider themselves somewhat or very conservative. By comparison, 55% of Republicans and only 20% of Democrats rate themselves as such. Eleven percent of Latinos, compared with 18% of Republicans and a mere 4% of Democrats, say they are very conservative.

Their professed conservatism ought to provide the GOP with an entree to Latino voters. But, although the PPIC survey identifies nearly a quarter of Latino voters as Republican, Lungren draws only one in 10 Latino votes.

It could be that Lungren’s public musings about his religion are, in part, an attempt to heighten his appeal among staunchly Catholic, socially conservative Latino voters. At a recent lunch with California reporters based in Washington, the attorney general directed a lot of attention to his own immigrant roots, his moral and family values and his record of support for legal immigration.

Lungren’s ads have stressed his record against crime, an issue the PPIC survey showed to be of primary importance to Latinos, 32% of whom listed it as the most serious problem facing California (compared with 28% of the total sample). The survey also suggested why Latino voters, who should be open to GOP themes, won’t be easy to woo: immigration.

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Immigration is not the hot-button issue it was in the ’94 gubernatorial campaign. Only 8% of registered voters now say it is the state’s No. 1 problem. But nearly 12% of Republicans view it as most important, about three times the percentage of Latino voters who saw it that way. When asked whether immigrants are a “benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills” or a “burden . . . because they use public services,” 64% of Latino voters regarded immigrants as a “benefit.” Conversely, 52% of Republicans saw immigrants as a “burden.”

In both the Field poll and the PPIC survey, about a quarter of likely primary voters are undecided in their choice for governor. According to Mark Baldassare, who directed the PPIC survey, undecided likely voters look and act much like other high-propensity voters. The biggest difference is that undecideds, unlike their politically committed peers, “haven’t focused on objective analysis, just advertising.”

Almost 80% of all likely voters, and 75% of their undecided counterparts, indicated they had seen TV ads of gubernatorial candidates. But 52% of the former group said they were also following related news stories “very or fairly closely,” while only 30% of the undecideds were doing so.

The first-ever open-primary debate on May 13 could focus the campaign. The candidates will have to handle topics not necessarily of their choosing. They’ll be pressed to address these issues convincingly.

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The greatest challenge and the biggest opportunity may be Lungren’s. If he can deflect attempts to paint him hard-right and use the debate to articulate his image, he could launch an effective centrist strategy to take him through the fall.


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