LOS ANGELES -- In this season of supposed anti-incumbency, former Democratic Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco would figure to have Republican Sen. Pete Wilson right where she wants him in their race for governor.
She is not in office but Wilson is, and he is in the same party as the retiring governor, George Deukmejian, in a state that has had major budget problems. And he shares the Washington incumbency of a Republican president slipping badly in the polls as a result of his flip-flop on taxes and mismanagement of the deficit-reduction fiasco.
Also, Feinstein is running against an incumbent senator who stayed home through the first six weeks after Labor Day while Congress wrestled with the budget, leaving him open to her charges of absenteeism. And he topped it all off by voting against his party's president on the budget deal, then with him on George Bush's veto of a critical civil rights bill.
All this ought to add up to winning ammunition for Feinstein. Yet she continues to trail Wilson in all the major polls, with most political analysts predicting the election is slipping away from her. A Los Angeles Times poll taken Oct. 19-24 showed Wilson ahead, 45 percent to 42 percent. Her campaign's decision to launch a series of negative television ads is seen here as an attempt to stop the bleeding.
One of the ads, showing an empty chair, ticks off important votes Wilson missed since Labor Day. Another offers Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole telling of the celebrated time Wilson, who was in the hospital, was wheeled onto the Senate floor to cast a critical to freeze Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.
"He was under heavy sedation," Dole says in what obviously was a humorous vein at a party affair. "We rolled him down the floor. I said, 'Vote yes,' he voted 'yes,' we rolled him out again." The audience is heard erupting in laughter, as Dole adds: "He does better under sedation." Then the ad's announcer concludes: "Imagine what Willie Brown of the legislature would do to him in Sacramento."
The Wilson campaign cried foul but the Feinstein camp continued to run the ad. One reason for that, according to Bill Carrick, Feinstein's campaign manager, is that senior citizens were going to Wilson by a 4-1 margin, but since the ad began they have started to move to her.
But the use of these and other negative ads challenging Wilson's performance as mayor of San Diego before his 1982 election to the Senate reflect a belief in the Feinstein camp that his reputation as a workmanlike if bland public official must be seriously eroded if she is to win.
Feinstein tried to tarnish this image with her attack on his post-Labor Day absence from the Senate, but when he went back and stayed there for two weeks, the issue lost much of its bite. Still, she continues to press it.
Referring to Wilson's vote that assured upholding of Bush's civil rights veto, Feinstein told a Santa Monica College audience the other day: "You know, Pete Wilson said he'd go back to Washington if his vote would make a difference. And it did. And that difference is that because of Pete Wilson's vote, the 1990 civil rights act is dead, and the same civil rights protections that are provided to people of color were not extended to working women. I say a state that is 51 percent female can't afford Pete Wilson as governor. A state with 42 percent of people of color cannot afford a governor who votes against civil rights legislation."
In all this, Feinstein's own message that she represents change in a state that needs change risks getting lost. Wilson has hitched himself to a ballot initiative that demands drastic change -- a call for a lifetime term-limitation on state legislators as well as statewide elected officials.
The initiative is being vigorously opposed by Assembly Speaker Brown, one of Feinstein's strongest supporters. Her insistence that as governor she will "handle Willie" only reminds voters of their ties.
Feinstein must also overcome a net Republican gain in registration of about 250,000 voters and a much more extensive GOP voter turnout effort, tied to absentee voting, than the Democrats have been able to mount. State officials estimate absentee voting may amount to 25 percent of the total.
The throw-the-ins-out anger heard elsewhere may yet focus on Pete Wilson. But it's late in the game and Feinstein appears to need it to beat him.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening ; Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The ; Sunday Sun.