Watching the third debate of the gubernatorial campaign on TV, one word kept turning over in my mind: click.
I could envision viewers with remotes clicking off candidates in mid-sentence.
Sentences right from the git-go, such as this one from Democrat Gray Davis: "Dan, something I learned in the U.S. Army: When you want to apply the character test, you better be able to pass the character test." And later this touche from Republican Dan Lungren: "Gray . . . I get my [education] ideas [firsthand] because I have raised three children."
Got that: Davis served in the military, Lungren didn't. Lungren is a father, Davis isn't.
Don't get me wrong. This debate last week was much improved over the previous two. There was far less nyah-nyahing and talking over each other. Another debate or two and the candidates may be ready for prime time.
But there still was too much sniping.
Davis: "I think you should be ashamed of yourself."
Lungren: "Just remember what the rules are and quit interrupting me."
Jack Kavanagh, a veteran TV reporter who was one of the debate questioners, later noted: "All the sniping just turns off people."
To the candidates' credit, both were sensitive to widespread criticism of their past debate inanities and they made a stab at telling viewers how they'd handle crucial state problems. But they used up so much time yelping at each other that they raced through substantive issues, as if desperately trying to cram in every topic on their lists. I suspect only a few dedicated policy wonks could keep up, or cared to.
The most bizarre waste was when Lungren used a third of his closing statement to draw a strained analogy between law enforcement officers and coach-choking basketball star Latrell Sprewell in their uses of binding arbitration.
"Latrell Sprewell? Is that what you're saying?" Davis interjected in disbelief.
Neither candidate won this debate.
"I don't think there's any grand vision here," longtime GOP strategist Ken Khachigian says of both candidates.
"Nobody's giving a sense of what the state should look like in 30 years; how we're going to provide the water and transportation for another 20 million people. There's still room for some heroic rhetoric about the 'California promise' and where the state fits into the world and how the governor fits into that.
"Voters don't have a sense that either candidate is going to make a difference in their lives."
Khachigian's credentials are solid. He has been a strategist for presidents, Senate candidates and governors--and also Lungren's two winning races for attorney general. He directed Bob Dole's losing presidential race in California and knows something about the "character issue."
He doesn't think Lungren will get very far trying to link Lt. Gov. Davis to President Clinton's character flaws. "There's no way you can morph Gray Davis into Bill Clinton," he says.
And trumpeting your own character--as Lungren has in a TV ad--"doesn't sell either, to tell you the truth," Khachigian asserts. " 'Character' is an element of a broader debate about leadership."
Lungren unquestionably has benefited from the Clinton scandal, the consultant says, because it revved up undecided Republican voters and pushed them to the GOP side. But he adds: "Basically, Dan was in the boat when the tide went up."
In other words, Lungren shouldn't get too excited about a recent Times poll that showed him running even with Davis after trailing in other surveys. The tide could go out again before election day.
Lungren didn't bring up "character" in the debate, presumably because he feared looking opportunistic. He expected the questioners to raise it, but they crossed him up.
"None of us wanted to ask the Monica question," Kavanagh says. "We felt we were there as advocates for voters. We were able to take the world through one hour without hearing about Monica Lewinsky."
The Times poll showed how Lungren benefits from the Clinton scandal. When people were asked whether it causes them to be more or less apt to vote, three times as many (14%) responded more apt. And these voters--mostly Republicans--supported Lungren by 3 to 1.
The impact of the voter turnout also was shown another way: The candidates were tied among "likely" voters. But among those not considered likely to vote, Davis led by nine points.
Davis worries--and Lungren hopes--that on Nov. 3, these Californians, indeed, will look at Clinton and politics and say: click.