In the third debate of a somewhat languid campaign for governor, Republican Dan Lungren and Democrat Gray Davis skipped quickly past scandal and strained Wednesday to find other issues that might distinguish their campaigns and motivate voters to support them.
Aside from a hard-hitting opening statement from Davis, the subject of character--which Lungren has tried recently to make a defining issue in light of President Clinton's troubles and which he expected to dominate the match--was almost ignored.
Davis, in his opening blast, suggested that Lungren's integrity--something the Republican touts in his television ads--is scarred by political votes against a variety of benefit programs.
"You define character as doing what's right when no one is looking," he said. "But your record, Dan, can best be described as what someone does when they think no one is looking; because what kind of character does it take to vote against Head Start, to vote against school lunches and to consistently raise your pay while you're doing that?
"Something I learned in the U.S. Army," said Davis, who is the state's lieutenant governor. "When you apply the character test, you had better be able to pass the character test."
Lungren--who last week chucked a speech on education to shift to the topic of character--just smiled at first, then suggested that Davis was distorting his record in Congress in the same way that caused Dianne Feinstein to complain that Davis twisted her record when the two Democrats fought a 1992 primary race for U.S. Senate.
"I now know how Dianne Feinstein felt back in 1992 with your comments on her record," Lungren said. "I think the best thing that people ought to know when they are thinking about who should be governor of the state of California is what they have done before."
Lungren then recited his accomplishments as a former congressman from Long Beach and as the state's attorney general since 1990.
In a news conference after the debate, Lungren conceded that he expected the panel of three reporters who questioned the candidates to ask about the Clinton scandal, but they never did.
Instead, the candidates covered familiar ground--education, tax policy, abortion, health care--sometimes reverting to the same arguments and statements they have made during their two previous face-to-face forums.
As before, the candidates also showed their tempers, lashing out at each other in confrontations that devolved into spats about whether the candidates were sharing their time fairly.
"If you want to give an example to children, you ought to give a good example . . . and play by the rules," Lungren rebuked Davis for interrupting him during his closing comments.
The 55-minute debate, sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Business Roundtable, was held in an auditorium at the state university campus in Sacramento. As in the last matchup, the candidates faced a panel of three reporters and, for one portion, were allowed to question each other.
Similarities and Disparities
With the election less than six weeks away, Wednesday was already considered something of a rubber match between the two candidates. Davis stumbled through their first meeting in July in San Diego, coming back well prepared for a forum last month in Fresno.
The campaigns have agreed to hold two more debates, but so far they have been unable to agree on details of the next meetings.
Both candidates have tried to portray their opponent as part of the political fringe and out of touch with mainstream Californians. But in issue after issue Wednesday, they struggled to find ways to demonstrate their differences.
One example was on taxes and the economy.
Asked to explain his campaign-trail promise to lower taxes, Lungren declined to offer specific examples of the reductions he would make. Instead he outlined general areas for consideration, including the capital gains tax, the income tax and the vehicle license fee.
"My long-range goal is to have a lower tax burden with respect to everybody," he said.
Davis, however, also backed a cut in the capital gains tax and the vehicle license fee--albeit smaller than Lungren's. Like his opponent, he also suggested targeted cuts for businesses--such as an investment tax credit--to stimulate growth.
Philosophically, the two separated when it came to former President Reagan's economic legacy.
Davis blamed Reagan for doubling the national debt. Lungren said Congress was responsible for the economic shortfalls because it did not live within necessary spending limits.
And the candidates had a sharp exchange about education, still identified by many voters as the prime topic of the campaign year.
Both support many reforms such as ending social promotions and teacher accountability. But they clashed over Lungren's support of vouchers and their differences on how to establish oversight of school performance.
Davis complained that vouchers--which would allow students to transfer from their assigned districts to another public school or private one--would deplete valuable education resources by transferring taxpayer money to private institutions.
But Lungren insisted that "vouchers will save the public school system."
"When you talk about education, you get your ideas from union meetings," he charged. "I get my ideas because I've raised three children . . . from working with my children and seeing them succeed."
On the oversight of schools, Davis said he would work within the existing structure even if it might be a cumbersome one. Lungren offered his support for Proposition 8, which includes an oversight panel of teachers and parents for each school.
During a portion of the debate when the candidates were allowed to question each other, Davis blasted Lungren for his handling of the state's restrictions on assault weapons, charging that the attorney general has failed to enforce a requirement that previously existing weapons be registered in a timely way.
"You are continuing to put illegal assault weapons on the street," he said. "I think you should be ashamed of yourself for that."
Lungren said: "As you know, since March of 1991, I have been defending the assault weapons bill."
Taking the Offensive
Lungren came on aggressively during his chance for questioning. He again chastised Davis for name-calling against Feinstein in 1992 and against Gov. Pete Wilson this year.
His question to Davis was whether his comments would now include a disclaimer that reads: "Caution, the words to be contained herein are not to be taken seriously or apology to follow."
Davis laughed. "I hardly know where to begin," he said.
One of the most familiar differences between the two candidates--a topic on which they are both broadcasting television commercials--is abortion.
During the debate, Davis repeated his complaint that Lungren has switched his position on abortion so that he now supports exceptions that would allow the procedure in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.
Lungren has maintained that his position has not changed even though he cast votes in Congress that did not include the exceptions.
"The question is, 'Who is the real Dan Lungren?' " Davis asked. "The Dan Lungren talking today or the Dan Lungren who voted in that fashion?"
As he did in previous debates, Lungren responded that some of his abortion votes were the same as those cast by Democrats Al Gore and Richard Gephardt. "I've never heard you say they are extremists," he said.
Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this report.
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