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For straight talk, Garamendi vs. McClintock is the race to watch

These guys should be running for governor: Democratic Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock.

They’d make the race a lot more interesting -- less predictable, much closer, more focused, offering a clearer choice of views and visions.

Instead, they’re competing for the backup job, lieutenant governor.

That’s a job that shouldn’t even exist.

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It’s a creation of the stagecoach era, when a governor could be out of state, out of contact and out of action for weeks. A lieutenant governor was needed to fill the power void, or so the early settlers theorized.

In these days of the BlackBerry, a governor -- like a president -- should never be forced to cede power just for stepping across the state line. If the governor resigned or perished, he could be replaced by, say, the attorney general.

But the political establishment never will abolish this office because it’s another job available to run for -- and a fancy-sounding one at that.

So there’s this small anachronistic office in the Capitol that’s used primarily as a steppingstone to the governor’s suite. Ten of the 44 lieutenant governors have walked that path.

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Whoever is elected lieutenant governor Nov. 7 will instantly become a candidate for governor in 2010, whether he publicly admits it or not.

“Honestly,” says Garamendi, 61, “I don’t know whether I would or would not run.”

There’s pretty good evidence that he would. He already has run twice for the Democratic nomination and lost.

McClintock, 50, is more frank about it.

“I thought I made that clear in 2003,” he says, referring to his gubernatorial bid in the Gray Davis recall.

“This is neck-and-neck, the most hotly contested race on the ballot,” says Jason Kinney, Garamendi’s chief strategist. “If you’re a political junkie, it’s the race you’re interested in.”

These candidates are interesting in themselves -- both knowledgeable, thoughtful, experienced policy wonks.

As insurance commissioner, Garamendi helped write workers’ compensation reform, has forced down homeowners’ premiums and decreed that auto rates should be based on driving records, not where a motorist resides.

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McClintock, a longtime conservative legislator from Thousand Oaks, was the crusader who deserves the most credit for cutting the car tax.

There’s a bit of party maverick in each. Neither is the “go-along-to-get-along” type.

“I’ve never been an inside ballplayer in the Capitol,” Garamendi told me 12 years ago when asked why he shunned schmoozing.

As a senator in the 1980s representing the Sierra gold country, where he grew up on a cattle ranch, Garamendi made what he conceded was a colossal mistake: He plotted a coup to oust then-Senate leader David Roberti, an ally, and received only one vote -- his own.

He’s a political loner who calls his own shots and speaks his mind.

Ditto McClintock. During the recall election, he rejected party demands that he drop out of the gubernatorial race to make more running room for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I’m old-fashioned,” he said. “I believe we should have a campaign and let the voters decide who wins. They’re perfectly capable.”

Voters awarded McClintock only 13.5% of the vote, but it probably was the best 13.5% any candidate ever picked up. He won a statewide reputation as a straight-shooting, no-baloney, political rarity. Moreover, he articulated his views in simple English.

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“If you can find it in the yellow pages, government shouldn’t be doing it,” he’s fond of saying.

That unambiguous talk -- shunting the pols’ usual squirmy muddle -- is the reason this far-right Republican has a good chance of being elected lieutenant governor in a blue state.

His views, especially on social issues, are out of sync with most Californians’.

McClintock doesn’t believe that, asserting: “Scratch the surface and California is still Reagan country. My issues have always been identical to his.”

Fiscal prudence is what McClintock emphasizes -- not his opposition to abortion rights or gun control.

But the Garamendi camp is mixing it all in with the senator’s votes against stem cell research, school funding boosts, anti-global-warming efforts and a minimum-wage hike -- things the Republican governor proudly embraces -- and is running a TV ad that accuses McClintock of being “too extreme for California.”

McClintock voted against three of the four public works bonds that the governor and Legislature negotiated. “Our kids will have to pay off those bonds,” he argues, “and they’ll have their own potholes to fill, their own schools to paint.” He did vote for the flood control bond.

So how would he and the centrist governor get along? “The role of the lieutenant governor is to amplify administration policies when there’s agreement and offer alternatives when there’s not,” he says.

“I intend to make the office an idea factory.”

That’s what Garamendi says he’d do. Only he’d develop different ideas.

The Democrat -- whom I’d classify as a moderate liberal (he opposes Phil Angelides’ proposed tax hikes) -- would resurrect an inactive Economic Development Commission and use that to produce proposals on energy creation, healthcare and higher education.

The commission is filled with legislators, and Garamendi believes they can all cooperate and sponsor bills.

And what does a lieutenant governor use for political leverage? “I do have a microphone -- the second-best sound system in the state.”

Only if it looks like he might become governor.

Too bad Garamendi and McClintock aren’t seeking that job now. There’d be fewer mind-numbing TV ads, because both are lousy at hitting up special interests for campaign bucks. Rather, there’d be several stimulating debates with straight talk.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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