When Checchi Threw Dirt, He Lost Ground

The first thing you notice when walking into the library at C.K. McClatchy High School is the huge water stain on the carpet, the telltale sign of a leaky roof--and yet another dilapidated California school. Al Checchi stood on the stain Tuesday, answering insightful questions from 150 attentive students. And you couldn't help but wonder what might have been.

What if the gubernatorial candidate--who has tumbled in the polls--had done more of this and run far fewer negative ads? What if he had boarded a school bus and toured the state in March, rather than waiting until the week before the primary election? What if he'd shot footage at crumbling schools and used that in TV ads, rather than distorting his opponents' records?

Maybe his "negatives" wouldn't be so high--52% unfavorable, 34% favorable in the latest Times Poll.

"He's sort of a dashing figure," government teacher Ted Appel remarked after observing Checchi. "He appeared to be bolder than other politicians. I was a little bit impressed. I'll consider voting for him."

Then the teacher added: "Fortunately, I don't watch a lot of TV. I haven't seen his ads."

For 30 minutes, Checchi connected with the faculty and students, talking about his education ideas, including "changing tenure" to "weed out" bad teachers.

Esmeralda Valdez, 17, asked the final question: Why spend money to buy surveillance cameras but not to fix roofs? Later she told me, "Roofs leak and in the bungalows there's no air-conditioning, no heaters."

Checchi merely answered that as governor, he would "allocate much more money for maintenance." But a few minutes later, he spoke passionately to reporters on the school steps.

"We are so under-investing in maintenance of these schools," he asserted, "it's leaking roofs, it's bathrooms that are stopped up. I've seen wings with roofs caving in and black widow spiders coming down. . . . I always find a water fountain that's clogged up. . . .

"I mean, I tell ya, if you folks would shine your cameras on the schools of California so the average citizen could see what we're doing to these children, it would be a whole lot easier to get an increase in spending. . . . I'm going to spend the next four days of this campaign traveling the schools and shining the light."

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Fine, Al, but where have your cameras been until now?

Here's an ad suggestion: The candidate sits on a stool in the library, points to the ceiling, looks into the camera and vows: "Elect me governor and I'll fix this roof--and I'll also get some modern books in here. We'll straighten out all our schools."

Instead, TV viewers got the hackneyed walking-on-the-beach ad, then the political thug commercials--despite Checchi's earlier vow not to go negative.

During The Times' gubernatorial debate, Checchi partially justified his attack ads this way: "They are [a] response to the guff I've gotten for a year and a half now from basically all [the other candidates'] handlers and their spin doctors. . . ."

In particular, he no doubt had in mind Garry South, the acerbic campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a master of leaks and prickly quotes. But as South points out: "You never let a paid staffer for another candidate get under your skin. It just diminishes you and it encourages them."

Talent wasted: an articulate, intelligent, energetic, charming, fresh-faced outsider--apparently with vision--campaigning like the stereotypical old hack.

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OK, call me naive.

"Every two years we go through this," says Darry Sragow, Checchi's campaign manager. "Insiders say, 'Negative ads turn off voters, negative ads have reached new heights.' Just not true. . . . All the hand-wringing about negative ads really misses the point. The fact is that negative ads work. That's why campaigns run them."

They certainly worked against Rep. Jane Harman. She was knocked out of the lead and gravely wounded by Checchi's attack ads. But his ads bounced off Davis--a more established statewide candidate--and boomeranged on Checchi.

The Times Poll found an enormous plurality of voters who believe that Checchi "has run the most negative campaign." Moreover, by 2 to 1, voters who have seen Checchi's spots say they came away with a less favorable opinion of the rich businessman.

Sragow asserts that this all is "insider garbage--a total misreading." What has hurt Checchi, he says, are Harman's counterattacks--weak as they were--plus Davis' stronger hits.

But Checchi drew first blood on TV. Negative ads are a two-edged sword.

It's much safer to just ride a school bus. And you might get more political mileage.

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