California Governor's Race Tests Old Clichs

As Democrats scratch for nomination, it's the poor, male insider who is now nudging ahead of the field.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As California's high-stakes gubernatorial primary heads into its final lap, it is testing several forces of contemporary American politics: the power of money, the power of gender, and the power of the outsider.

So far, none of the above are proving decisive factors among Democrats battling to be their party's nominee on June 2, and its vehicle for regaining the governorship of the nation's largest state after 16 years of Republican rule.

Congresswoman Jane Harman jumped into the race late and was not well known. But in a state famous for electing women to high office, the assumption was that being a woman would be a huge, even critical, advantage. According to the most recent Field poll, she's in third place and slipping.

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Airline tycoon Al Checchi is single- handedly setting political spending records with a tab near $25 million. Yet he remains stuck in second place.

Leading the pack is Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who has spent the least and has a rsum that says political "insider."

Though there is no incumbent candidate, Mr. Davis is as close as you can get and his strength is typical of a pattern. "With voters as happy as clams, incumbents are doing well all over the country," says political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute.

On the issues of money and gender, analysts say the lesson from California is not that they don't matter, just that they're not decisive. In each race, many factors come into play that can blunt those forces, powerful though they are.

"Gender has not been a factor because there is no gender gap" in this governor's race says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field poll. In his view, gender only helps when there is an issue that voters care a lot about and perceive the woman candidate to have a greater affinity for their point of view. "Harman has not raised any substantive issue that could distinguish her from the other male candidates," says Mr. DiCamillo.

Schneider sees Ms. Harman's weakening stand in the polls as a result of voters becoming convinced that she does not neatly fit the model of a liberal Democrat, which is what voters are often seeking when they invoke a gender preference. Harman, more of a moderate Democrat who gets high marks from pro-business organizations, has also been hurt by aggressive television ads from the Mr. Checchi campaign that have characterized her as more conservative than she is, according to Schneider.

THE damage done to Harman is one indicator of the power of Checchi's war chest. But the net effect seems to have sent voters over to the Davis camp.

Checchi's wealthy campaign has allowed him to reach a large audience. Some 60 percent of likely voters in the state say they've seen his television advertising "a lot." But nearly a third of likely voters feel his ads are unfair, which may be a factor in his rising "unfavorable" image among potential voters.

As of late April, the Davis campaign had been outspent 50 to 1 by Harman and Checchi, according to Davis pollster Paul Maslin. "The dynamic is that voters have looked at those candidates and found them wanting. They've returned to a safe choice that they have a good feeling about," he says.

One of the wild cards in the primary is how many voters will cross party lines now that they're free to do so under California's new voting rules. Checchi, for instance, has the highest marks among Republicans and with no competition to Attorney Dan Lungren on the GOP side, there could be crossover vote for him.

Going into the final month of the campaign, close to a quarter of likely voters remain undecided. Analysts point out that gender preferences often don't solidify until very late in a race. And even if money isn't decisive, it's already having an impact and will continue to do so. Checchi has mounted an extraordinary vote-by-mail ballot effort with mailings to some 2.5 million registered voters. As Mr. Maslin puts it: "The thing that gives us all pause is all his money."

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