GOP rivals for California's top office fight to stand in Reagan's shadow

Underlying the fight to determine who may step into Ronald Reagan's boots as the next GOP governor of California is a smaller, yet still important, skirmish: Who has the closest ties to President Reagan?

Although Mr. Reagan is well-known for staying out of Republican primary races , both Lt. Gov. Mike Curb and Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian -- the two GOP gubernatorial contenders on next June's primary ballot -- have boasted of their alliances with the President, who enjoys tremendous personal popularity in his home state.

Mr. Curb has worked hard to portray himself as a Reagan protege, picking up the early endorsements of several key Reagan California associates who belong to what is known as the President's "kitchen cabinet."

But it is Mr. Deukmejian -- whose ties with the President date back to Reagan's first campaign for governor in 1966 -- who has scored the latest coup, winning the Oct. 15 endorsement of the President's brother, Neil Reagan. The elder Reagan is a retired advertising executive not known for getting involved in political races other than his brother's. But he says he cleared his decision with the President before coming out on Deukmejian's behalf, and Mr. Reagan was "not unhappy" with his move.

Although Neil Reagan is not considered a "heavyweight" in California political circles, the endorsement is a significant one with subtle overtones of White House support. The brothers are extremely close and observers note that it is highly unlikely Neil would do anything that might displease his brother.

As such, the endorsement takes at least some of the wind out of Curb's campaign sails -- and is almost like icing on the cake for the attorney general, who received a clear boost when his opponent took a bad political stumble at a recent convention of the state GOP.

Curb, a youthful former record company executive, is presenting himself as a businessman running against a "career politician." But political strategists note that his Hollywood background and slick style make him a "flashy" candidate , a sort of Republican equivalent to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. This is in clear, largely unfavorable contrast, they say, to the older, more staid (critics say boring) Deukmejian.

The attorney general, for his part, developed an early strategy based on portraying himself as a mature, stable candidate -- implying, although not stating, that the lieutenant governor is neither of these things. It is an image that received a clear boost less than two weeks ago when Curb launched a tense, emotional attack on a newspaper reporter during a press conference at a Palm Springs gathering of the state GOP.

The lieutenant governor's shaky handling of the event set the convention buzzing and caused political analysts to speculate that Curb may have dealt his gubernatorial aspirations a lethal blow. In addition, Curb may have jeopardized another Reagan connection. Although the lieutenant governor had announced that Ed Rollins, the President's chief Western political deputy, would be leaving the White House to take over his campaign Nov. 1, unconfirmed yet widespread rumors now have it that Curb's convention performance has caused Mr. Rollins to change his mind.

"It was a remarkable incident, a very revealing performance that will be very damaging to Curb," observed California pollster Mervin Field after the convention.

"Deukmejian doesn't have to do much more than be the good, gray, sober-sided candidate," he added. "He really doesn't."

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