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Kathleen Brown's Big Lead Fades In Race for California Governor

Slippage dims Democratic hopes for wins in key populous states

IN Nov. 8 elections widely predicted to tilt Republican in both House and Senate, Democratic party strategists have hoped to counter national party losses with key gubernatorial wins in populous states. The news is not good.

New York Democratic veteran Mario Cuomo trails by 6 to 15 points, while Texan Ann Richards is mired in a statistical dead heat. Florida's Lawton Chiles trails Republican challenger Jeb Bush by an elephant's tail.

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And despite two solid years of revolving-door forays by Mr. Clinton into the largest state of all, California looks increasingly like it will not only reelect its Republican CEO, Pete Wilson, it may simultaneously anoint Mr. Wilson as one of Clinton's challengers to the 1996 White House.

``Without question, a win for Pete Wilson here puts him in the front of the line for the 1996 GOP ticket,'' says Joe Cerrell, a longtime Democratic consultant here. After trailing state treasurer Kathleen Brown by double digits for months, Wilson has pulled ahead of Ms. Brown by 2 percent among registered voters and 7 to 9 percent among likely voters.

``It's not fair to write her [political] obituary just yet, but she should have one ready,'' says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal.

``Ironically, the electorate has been looking for a reason to get rid of Wilson ... unfortunately Kathleen Brown has not yet given them one.''

In 1993, GOP candidate Christine Todd Whitman fought off a surge in the polls by then-incumbent Gov. James Florio to win the New Jersey governor's race. Her ploy was offering a 30-percent tax cut.

``Unfortunately, Brown has no such ideas up her sleeve,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. ``Her biggest problem is that she has not yet articulated her vision of why she wants to be governor.''

Brown's problems have been exacerbated by the general shift away from liberal Democrats around the country. But they are primarily her own, observers here say. After leading Wilson by over 30 points early in the year, Brown watched the gap close as she stumbled amidst political gaffes and staff shakeups. Critics statewide charge that her campaign still lacks consistency, confidence, and direction.

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Since the June 7 primary, Wilson has defined the political debate by achieving a high profile on two of California's hottest issues: crime and immigration. He was America's first governor to sign a ``three-strikes-you're-out'' bill putting third-time felons behind bars for life. And he led five other states in filing two lawsuits against the federal government seeking money owed for disproportionate costs incurred by California in handling illegal aliens.

Meanwhile, Brown has come under criticism for personally opposing the death penalty while seeking to assure voters she would enforce the state's capital punishment law. She retracted statements made about other leading Democrats, including a comment that Sen. Dianne Feinstein has flipflopped on the death penalty issue. And perhaps her strongest issue - California's economic woes during Wilson's tenure - has been undermined by recent indicators showing the state is emerging from recession.

``Her best ad, saying `Wilson Fails' [on the economy], came way too late in the campaign,'' says Professor Jeffe.

A major campaign pledge ``to create 1 million new jobs,'' has been undercut both by news of Wilson ``strike teams'' who have helped keep major employers in the state and by the improving job climate.

``Any California governor, just by sitting in office during recovery, will preside over jobs gains like that,'' says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Denver Center for the New West. ``It's not a selling point.''

Moreover, the Wilson camp promises that their candidate will be on the campaign trail almost daily. ``Pete Wilson will be all over the place,'' says Wilson campaign spokesman Dan Schnur.

Steven Glazer, Brown's senior adviser, denies some reports that the Brown campaign is running low on Democratic contributions siphoned off to aid fellow Democrat Feinstein, who is fighting off billionaire challenger Michael Huffington.

``[Brown] has raised more money than any Democratic official in the state's history,'' Mr. Glazer says. He adds that the Brown campaign has been waiting until the final month to unleash its strongest salvos.

``We have conserved our funds until October when [voters] pay attention,'' says Glazer.

``Our challenge is to encapsulate her vision and communicate it effectively in the last five weeks.'' By leaflet, flyer, and 64-page bluebook entitled, ``Building A New California,'' Brown has summed up her message in five points:

* Create 1 million new jobs through a restructured tax system, defense-technology conversion, and encouraging small business.

* Modernize schools with computers, ``JobReady'' curriculum, and funding incentives.

* Make college affordable by freezing fee-hikes and providing low-interest loans.

* Address middle-class needs by closing loopholes for the rich, and stifling unfair service cuts.

* Protect families from crime with police partnerships, gang prevention, and a California Public Safety Council.

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