California governor race -- still too close to call

The job pays only $49,100 a year. But the two men vying for it want it so badly that between them they've already spent a state record of more than $12 million trying to land the post.

The catch, of course, is that this isn't just any job: it's the governorship of California, the nation's most populous state. And it's a post that has consistently drawn more national attention in recent years than virtually any of the country's 49 other gubernatorial slots.

This year, the job that has served as a presidential launching pad - successfully for Ronald Reagan, unsuccessfully for Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. - is being eyed with particular interest.

Smarting after eight years under Governor Brown, Republicans, led by President Reagan, are pushing hard to recapture the governor's office in the President's home state with their candidate, Attorney General George Deukmejian.

Democrats, including Democratic National Committee chairman Charles T. Manatt , are equally concerned about hanging on to the governor's seat as part of their campaign against Reaganomics. They are counting on a win by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who would be the nation's first elected black governor, and who already is widely mentioned in Democratic circles as a future vice-presidential contender.

At present, the race is too close to call - with Mr. Bradley's comfortable lead of 14 percent just two weeks ago dropping quickly. The latest California Poll, released Oct. 27 by independent pollster Mervin Field, shows 47 percent either voting for or leaning toward Bradley, against 41 percent for Deukmejian. Twelve percent are either ''other'' or undecided.

''If ever turnout had any meaning in an election, it's in this one,'' predicts Mr. Field. Traditionally, low voter participation, or turnout, helps Republican candidates. In the present race, says Field, a turnout of 65 percent or lower will help Mr. Deukmejian.

However, Field notes that he has begun to track what other pollsters nationwide are reporting: a public restlessness over the economy that may lead more voters to turn to Democrats. In addition, the resentment toward Reagan among women and minorities that pollsters have noted elsewhere may also lead to a high turnout here.

Bradley has repeatedly refused to characterize his campaign as a referendum on Reaganomics - and has at the same time kept a careful distance from fellow Democrat Jerry Brown, the party's candidate for US Senate. But he nonetheless represents a clear alternative to Deukmejian, an old state capitol ally of the President's who makes frequent note of his support of Reagan and his policies.

Prominent issues, themes, and differences in the campaign have included:

The environment. Mayor Bradley, who has helped lead the legal battles against Interior Secretary James Watt's plans for offshore oil drilling, has used this issue for sharp criticism of Deukmejian, who has supported Mr. Watt.

Taxes. Attorney General Deukemjian, who supported successful June ballot measures abolishing the inheritance tax and setting up permanent income-tax indexing, repeatedly points out that his opponent was against both measures. Deukmejian has said he will balance the state budget without increasing taxes; Bradley refuses to be locked into such a position, and accuses Deukmejian of being unrealistic.

Experience. Bradley, who is now serving his third term as mayor of Los Angeles, boasts frequently of his City Hall record, which has included balancing nine consecutive budgets with no new taxes. Deukmejian stresses that he has had over 20 years of experience in state government.

Although Deukmejian moved early to corner the crime issue - criticizing Bradley for, among other things, failing to support last June's sweeping crime-reform ballot measure, Proposition 8 - political observers note that strategy may fall short of success. In recent weeks, opinion polls showed that the economy has eclipsed crime as a major concern among the state's voters. This fits well with Bradley's campaign theme of ''jobs, jobs, and more jobs.''

Also at issue in the election is the matter of race, a subject which has provoked widespread debate in political circles. Although the issue is never brought up by the candidates themselves, it is considered so sensitive that Deukmejian's campaign manager resigned recently after telling reporters that while polls failed to reveal a ''hidden antiblack vote,'' such a vote probably existed nonetheless.

Political observers agree, however, that the quiet, controlled Bradley is hardly likely to alarm nonblack voters. ''If there's any black candidate who will make (nonblack) people relax about (his) being black, it's Bradley,'' says Raymond Wolfinger, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

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