THE nation's most-watched governor's race comes into focus this week as California Democrats and Republicans winnow out the top contender from each party to battle through November. Like many of the largest states, the top issues, in order, are crime, the state economy and jobs, education reform, immigration.
After 15 months of scattered campaigning by five contenders, primary voters here tomorrow will try to match those issues with faces, political ad rhetoric, and their own gut feelings.
All polls and political pundits point to a runoff between Republican Gov. Pete Wilson - rebounding in recent months from the lowest public approval ratings of any modern governor here - and Democratic State Treasurer Kathleen Brown. Ms. Brown is the daughter of one former California governor (Pat Brown, 1957-1968) and the sister of another (Jerry Brown, 1975-1983).
``Unless the California electorate has been lying to pollsters in droves, it will be Brown and Wilson down the stretch,'' says A.G. Block, managing editor of the California Journal. The latest Los Angeles Times poll has Brown leading 17 points over the nearest contender, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.
Gov. Wilson leads Republican challenger Ron Unz by 52 percent to 29 percent. The support given to Mr. Unz, a little-known young conservative who entered the race in early April, is said to highlight a disaffection with Wilson that runs to the core of the
``When a complete unknown comes out of nowhere to garner nearly a third of the vote from an incumbent, you've got trouble in River City,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. ``To bring those voters back by the fall, Wilson may need to move to the right, which would well risk other voting blocks.''
The governor's race here is important nationally. One fifth (54) of the electoral votes needed for victory in a presidential election are cast here, not to mention a winner-takes-all presidential primary that guarantees the winner a huge block of party-convention delegates. ``You simply cannot be president of the United States and not win this state,'' says Democratic strategist Robert Beckel. Noting that Texas and Florida have moved solidly Republican in recent years, he adds: ``That's why [Clinton] will be out here practically every day near the election.''
A Brown win would solidify a triumvirate of Democrats in state offices that now include Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Ms. Feinstein is expected to win tomorrow's Democratic primary for US Senator and defeat the fall challenge of millionaire Republican Senate candidate Michael Huffington, also expected to top former US Rep. William E. Dannemeyer tomorrow.
GUBERNATORIAL win for Wilson would position him for a presidential run against Democratic President Clinton, though he has repeatedly denied he will run.
According to polls, Wilson would now lose the state runoff with Brown by a margin of 51 percent to 41 percent. But that gap, once as wide as 20 points, is expected to continue narrowing.
``Kathleen Brown has yet to articulate why she wants to be governor,'' notes Jeffe. ``Now that things are going head to head, she won't be able to get away with that anymore.''