Accentuate the negative is California's message

GERMOND & WITCOVER

June 20, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

LOS ANGELES -- Although California politics earned a black eye in the recent Senate primary elections for the negative tone that dominated television advertising in the races for the state's two Senate seats, little time has been wasted resuming the attack strategy.

Republican Sen. John Seymour, trying to hold onto the last two years of the seat to which he was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson after Wilson won the governorship in 1990, is already back on the air with a negative ad against the winner of the Democratic primary for the "short seat," former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein won her primary decisively and is currently favored to oust Seymour, a lackluster campaigner considered too moderate some Southern California Republicans.

The commercial, seeking to tap into the public disillusionment with politicians, notes among other things that Feinstein opposes term limitations on legislators.

The incumbent Seymour says he should be elected "because we've got to shake things up in Washington" -- where at last sighting he was still working.

As California attacks go, this was mild, especially compared to the ad that loser Gray Davis, the state controller, ran against Feinstein in the last days of the Democratic primary. That one compared her to hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, jailed for income-tax evasion, because of a civil, not criminal, investigation into possible campaign finance irregularities in Feinstein's failed gubernatorial bid of 1990.

For years it was an axiom in politics that negative advertising was best kept for the late stages of a campaign, after the attacker's own credibility was established and when it would be too late for an effective reply by the candidate under attack. But Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston of California ignored that rule in 1986 when, on the morning after a formidable Republican, then-Rep. Ed Zschau, won the GOP primary, he began running negative ads against him.

Zschau, still reeling from a tough primary fight, was kept on the defensive and finally lost a close race to Cranston. Seymour has apparently taken a page from Cranston's book in the hope of preventing Feinstein from running away with the election early.

In the race for California's "long seat" -- a full six-year term to replace the retiring Cranston -- state Republicans are looking to their primary winner, television commentator Bruce Herschensohn of Los Angeles, to help anchor the party's conservative base against the onslaught of Ross Perot in the presidential election.

Herschensohn is a right-wing darling who is expected to paint Democratic primary winner Rep. Barbara Boxer as an unvarnished, free-spending liberal. However, Democrats generally are pleased that Herschensohn beat Republican moderate Rep. Tom Campbell for the nomination, on grounds that he is too conservative for California and will be an easier mark.

Professionals in both parties believe the contest for the state's 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the 270 needed to capture the White House, could be affected by the long-seat campaign. They argue that Herschensohn will assure a large turnout of strongly conservative Republicans who have been cool to President Bush and downright hostile toward his campaign chairman here, Pete Wilson.

Similarly, strategists believe Boxer's candidacy is likely to attract a heavy turnout of like-minded northern California liberals who have been less than enthusiastic about Gov. Bill Clinton, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee.

One key may be whether there is a Supreme Court decision this month, as expected, that either approves the restrictions on abortion in the Pennsylvania law or overturns the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Polls indicate that the abortion rights issue is a volatile one in California and provide a clear gender gap derived from women crossing party lines to vote for other women.

Right now, however, the fever for Ross Perot is hot enough that some strategists are wondering whether the higher turnout would necessarily benefit either major party candidate. Although runs less well among women than among men, there is evidence in several states that some Republican women may be willing to defect to Perot, who also favors abortion rights, when they would resist voting for Democrat Clinton.

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