In '94 Campaign, California Candidates Vie With Simpson Trial for the Spotlight

CANDIDATES in California will have more to worry about this fall than just the taunts of a political rival.

There will also be The Trial.

The 1,000-watt attention being given the O.J. Simpson court case could siphon off media coverage and cut into voter interest in elections, affecting key races.

Already, strategists in various political camps have been struggling to make media buys and schedule press conferences around saturation coverage of the event.

With the trial now set for Sept. 19 - about the time the public normally tunes into elections - the juggling will get even more difficult.

In a big state like California, where garnering public attention is hard enough, the trial promises to be a major diversion in a year of important races and ballot initiatives.

``It is going to be hard to break through the clutter,'' says Mark DiCamillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll. ``Anyone who is well known is going to have an advantage.''

How much impact the trial will have depends in part on the depth of coverage and the amount of attention the public pays to it. Many profess to be tired of, even angry at, the media mania over the case. But others remain captivated, and, even though there is something of a hiatus in the satellite feeds now, interest will likely build once jury selection begins. That will make it harder for other news items to make it onto a half-hour broadcast or into the columns of a newspaper, though analysts, to a person, lament that television in the state does little to cover elections now.

``It doesn't eliminate political coverage, but it definitely shrinks it,'' says Dan Schnur, spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson (R).

The result is likely to be a boost for incumbents, who usually have better name recognition, as well as candidates with deep pockets who can buy their own air time. Paid political advertisements, in other words, will become more important - including the ubiquitous ``attack ad.''

``Even more than normal, [the TV spotlight on Simpson] allows the candidates who have money to frame the issues and define their opponents,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. ``It is not going to be healthy for the process.''

In the tight governor's race being watched by both national parties, most analysts think that could help Mr. Wilson, since he is the incumbent and has more money in the bank: $4.7 million versus $2.5 million for his rival, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D), as of the end of June.

Some also think the trial will keep public attention riveted on the issue of crime, which could help the governor. Ms. Brown has been perceived by some as less tough on the issue because she is a woman and because of her stance on the death penalty: She opposes it philosophically but vows to carry out the statute if elected.

There is one caveat here, though. The trial could raise conflicting feelings over capital punishment - Californians now overwhelmingly support it - since some people don't believe it should be applied to Mr. Simpson.

Even so, the Wilson camp believes it will benefit from the trial since, as Mr. Schnur puts it, it will be a ``daily reminder to people of the importance of public safety.''

Brown strategists may not be willing to concede that point, but they are concerned, as challengers, about getting their message out. ``I think it hurts us more, because we depend more on our ability to communicate with people about the failures of the Wilson administration,'' says Brown staffer John Whitehurst, who has one person monitoring the Simpson case daily so they can avoid conflicts in scheduling events.

One exception to the aiding-incumbents rule could be the US Senate contest between Dianne Feinstein (D) and Michael Huffington (R). Though she is the officeholder and better known, Mr. Huffington, a millionaire congressman, could outspend her on TV advertising in the closing months. Ms. Feinstein holds a narrow edge in the race now.

Still, as the marquee matchups in the state, these two races will receive the bulk of whatever coverage there is. The biggest impact of any public-media preoccupation with the trial may fall on candidates running for less-visible statewide offices.

Another result, especially if campaigning turns negative, could be to hold down voter turnout in a state where participation has been faint of late. Low voter turnout usually benefits the Republicans, though there are several high-profile initiatives on the ballot that will bring people to the polls.

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