California Governor's Race Gets Tougher
Open primary makes it the most unpredictable contest in the nation
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (March 26) -- The race for governor of California has become the most unpredictable race in the country and it will likely be the most expensive.
Money was the reason why potential candidates like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former White House chief of staff Leon Pannetta decided not to run.
The Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, stayed in, but he is finding it hard to raise money.
Money is not a problem for the two other Democrats in the race, multimillionaire businessman Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman, whose husband is a multimillionaire.
Last weekend, the three Democratic candidates confronted each other for the first time at the California Democratic Convention, and money became an issue.
On Monday, Checchi's campaign reported it has already spent $18 million on the campaign, 2 1/2 months before the primary. That's a new record.
Davis, whose campaign slogan is "Experience Money Can't Buy," attacked both of his opponents as "self-financed candidates who are spending unheard-of sums to run for public office."
Checchi defended himself by going on the offensive. "Ask yourself how Mr. Davis has paid for his candidacy and his past candidacies, and then ask yourself, 'Whose vote is for sale?' " he said.
How high is Checchi willing to go?
"There's not an upper limit, because I haven't thought about it," Checchi said. "The people are not concerned about the fact that I am spending my own money."
Checchi has blanketed the airwaves with ads that tout him as a non-politician who has built his career in business, not politics. Other spots build his name recognition, including one that features children struggling to pronounce his name ["Check-ee"]. Still another ad uses his wife speaking Spanish to target California's fast-growing Hispanic vote.
In January, Harman got in. She started spending money on TV ads -- $3 million to date -- and made it a three-way race. Harman's dramatic biographical ad, featuring her as an usher at the 1960 Democratic convention, propelled her into prominence, and reminded a lot of voters of a similar biographical ad that propelled Feinstein to prominence in 1990. There was a good reason: Many of Feinstein's top campaign advisers are now working for Harman.
Right now, although Republican Dan Lungren leads the open primary field with 24 percent, the momentum among Democrats seems to be with Harman. At 17 percent, she has moved ahead of Checchi (15 percent), taking votes mostly from Davis (11 percent) who still has not started running TV ads.
Why has Checchi stalled? He's got a "Huffington" problem. As a multimillionaire candidate with no electoral experience, Checchi reminds many voters of Michael Huffington, the Republican who spent almost $30 million on the 1994 Senate race and almost beat Feinstein.
The Huffington analogy hurts Checchi, but the Feinstein analogy helps Harman. Feinstein is the most popular politician in California. Harman's a moderate Democrat like Feinstein who decided to run because Feinstein pulled out. And she's a woman, in a party that has nominated only women for governor and senator since 1990.
The race turned sharply negative this week. Checchi ran a tough ad about Harman statewide during the Academy Awards broadcast Monday night: "She voted to cut Medicare and cut home health care services. She even voted to increase the power of the IRS over seniors, letting it disclose personal information to hospitals about elderly and disabled Medicare recepients. No wonder she calls herself the best Republican in the Democratic Party."
At the convention last weekend, Davis called himself the only real Democrat in the race. He criticized Checchi for giving money to Republicans Steve Forbes and Bob Dole in 1996.
What makes this race unpredictable is that no one knows who's going to vote. The rules have changed. California now allows all voters, not just Democrats, to vote in the Democratic primary. A strongly partisan message could pay off -- or backfire.