Whatever It Tales to Win, Right?

Ernest B. Furgurson

October 12, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

HOMEWOOD, CALIFORNIA — Homewood, California.---THE BUDGET fiasco in Washington has helped heighten a nationwide anti-politician mood that applies to everyone from Calaveras county supervisor to president of the United States. The Republican candidate for governor of California, obviously a close reader of opinion polls, thinks that mood may decide who takes over in Sacramento.

Until the first gubernatorial campaign debate between Sen. Pete Wilson and the former San Francisco mayor, Dianne Feinstein, Californians were having a hard time finding out what separated them besides party and gender. Mr. Wilson is a moderate Republican, Ms. Feinstein a moderate Democrat, and their ideologies overlap in the middle of the spectrum.

But persistent polling on the state's many ballot questions finally inspired a daring if contradictory decision by Mr. Wilson, which has pepped up a campaign that earlier focused more on his Senate absenteeism and Ms. Feinstein's husband's finances than on strictly pertinent issues.

On September 30, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that by a 2-1 margin, California voters favored an initiative limiting the terms of state office holders. This news sounded ominous to politicians in every state, because it came soon after Oklahomans approved such a limit and Massachusetts primary voters threw out a whole platoon of incumbents. Colorado also has a term limit on its November ballot.

A week after the poll, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Feinstein met in their first televised debate. Both were carefully rehearsed, and neither made a serious error. But Mr. Wilson made news: After opposing such restrictions in the past, he asserted that he supported Proposition 140, the more severe of two term-limit initiatives offered state voters.

For any outsider running against the political establishment, this would be a predictable stance. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both became president by running against Washington, and many a veteran politician started his career by promising to throw the rascals out.

From Mr. Wilson, however, the turnabout a month before election seemed more than usually opportunistic. He is not an outsider, but a type-cast professional politician.

For five years, he was in the California legislature, serving as minority whip. For 12 years, he was mayor of San Diego. For eight years, he has been a U.S. senator. That makes 25 years in public office. Yet he puts himself in a different class from incumbent California legislators.

He said he was convinced that voters were right in their anger at the legislature's performance. ''I share their outrage,'' he said. The legislature has deteriorated markedly, he maintained, without adding ''since I was there.''

Ms. Feinstein pointed out that legally bouncing legislators as soon as they get basic experience would give the public interest little chance against lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay on year after year. But she was on the short end of public opinion.

Earlier, polls were showing the race almost dead even. Immediately after the debate, a KNBC/TV telephone survey found Senator Wilson with a five-point lead; his favorable-unfavorable rating was 43-24, compared to Ms. Feinstein's 38-31.

Republicans from the White House down are tuned in to this California test, because Democrats dominate not only Congress but most state legislatures. With congressional redistricting coming up in the wake of the 1990 census, those legislatures will decide how new lines are drawn, thus affect the GOP's chance of whittling the Democratic majority. The legislative role is most important in Sunbelt states like California, where booming population in the Eighties will add congressional seats in the Nineties.

Should Mr. Wilson hold onto his lead to become governor, he may rue his shift to support six-year term limits for the legislators with whom he must work. Even some Republicans in Sacramento criticized his move, calling it ''gratuitous, to the say the least.'' His ticket mate, Marion Bergeson, running for lieutenant governor, disowned it as ''a bad idea.''

Democrats and their supporters were more pointed. The Sacramento Bee noted editorially that Mr. Wilson ''has been a professional politician longer than most of the legislators he wants to run out of office. Thus, if his logic were followed, presumably he too would never be allowed to run for the Senate, or perhaps any office, again.''

Political writers are always insisting on honesty. Sports writers find more of it -- in TV wrestling, for example.

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