Governor's Race Takes New Turn in California

Three-way contest among Democrats could shift debate to the left - and victory to the incumbent

WHAT may be the nation's marquee governor's race this fall is taking on a new cast that complicates the contest for Democrats and could enhance the prospects for embattled Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

The surprise entry this week of liberal, former antiwar activist Tom Hayden into the race dramatically changes the dynamics for the two already declared - and it was presumed only - major Democratic contenders.

With high name recognition, populist causes, and a core following among liberals and environmentalists, Mr. Hayden will siphon off some votes from state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi in the Democratic primary in June. While few people, including Hayden, think he can win the primary, his presence as a sort of liberal Ross Perot trumpeting political reform will highlight different issues, garner national attention, and likely narrow the margin of whoever does win.

``Hayden may move both Garamendi and Brown to the left in the Democratic primary, which will hurt the Democrats in the general election,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School.

The three-way contest among the Democrats, particularly if it were to turn ugly, could benefit the fall election chances of Mr. Wilson, who is expected to run unopposed in the primary.

Boost to governor

Just a few months ago, Wilson, though in office, looked almost like the Harold Stassen of California politics. But now, with his leadership role in the wake of a string of natural disasters, crime an ascendant issue, and the Hayden move, he is alive, if still not completely well politically.

``It is like manna from heaven for Pete Wilson,'' says Steve Merksamer, a GOP strategist, of the Hayden move.

``He [Hayden] will roil the Democratic waters,'' adds veteran California pollster Mervin Field. ``Whatever votes he gets, he is going to put Brown's and Garamendi's feet to the fire.''

In making his announcement Wednesday, Hayden, now a state senator, said his main motive in campaigning was to focus attention on the need to reform the political system in California. He identified special interests as the greatest obstacle to solving the state's ``deepening crisis.''

The one-time founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society proposes strict limits on campaign spending, a code of ethics for political consultants, and a more open lobbying system. He vows not to speak ill of his opponents and says he will bow out of the race if his proposals are seriously embraced by other candidates.

``It is going to liven up discussion of the issues,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

He will draw greater attention to a race that is already of national importance. The next governor of California, as always, will be watched for higher political ambitions he or she may harbor.

Ms. Brown, in particular, has attracted national attention, both because she would be the state's first woman governor and because she would be the third member of her family to hold the office. Hayden may cut into some of that klieg-light focus, as he already did this week, upstaging Brown's formal announcement of her candidacy.

As Mr. Merksamer, referring to the trial of those accused of instigating the riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, puts it: ``It is not everyday you have a member [Hayden] of the Chicago Eight running for governor of California.''

No lock on election

Hayden could also cut into some of the constituencies of Brown, who just a few months ago was considered by her supporters to have a virtual lock on both the primary and general elections. Years of economic malaise and squabbling with the state legislature over the budget had left Wilson at a modern low in the polls.

Garamendi, though an interesting maverick, was expected to be no match for the better-financed Brown, whose campaign coffers were, and remain, five times flusher than his.

But Wilson has since rebounded somewhat, and Garamendi, like the governor, has gained visibility for his involvement as state insurance commissioner during the earthquake recovery.

While Brown still has to be considered the early front-runner on the Democratic side, Hayden will help level the playing field. In primaries, liberal activists and support groups become more important - two forces Hayden can tap into.

The ex-husband of actress Jane Fonda doesn't need to spend much money to spread his name: A 1990 Field poll showed that 73 percent of California Democrats knew who he was, with 42 percent having a favorable impression; 31 percent, unfavorable.

His environmental stands and crusade to reform the political system will appeal to Jerry Brown activists, many of whom might have been expected to support Kathleen, sister of the former governor. The Santa Monica-based lawmaker could also cut into her Los Angeles base.

Garamendi, however, has been positioning himself more to the left of Brown, and, to the extent he continues to cut a populist image, he could bump into Hayden.

Watching all this, with some glee, will be Wilson.

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