Cover Story

Will a pro-lifer ever reign in California?

As goes California, so goes the nation? The nation's biggest political bellwether features a conservative/liberal, pro-life/pro-abortion matchup in the governor's race. But as Election Day draws near, is GOPer Dan Lungren adopting a marketing-cautious game plan?

Issue: "California: Bellwether state," Oct. 24, 1998

in Los Angeles--Their tactical pow-wow concluded, Dan Lungren's L.A.-area campaign chiefs stream from the rosewood-paneled Ferrero Family Room at California's Industry Hills Sheraton, leaving in the dim light a lone figure in a cowboy hat. Bending to peer critically into a broad, low-slung mirror, Mr. Lungren traces a finger around the brim of his new, white Stetson-a gift just received from a supporter. He taps the hat's crown once and smiles. Come November, he aims to ride into California's electoral sunset with the governor's chair in tow-the Stetson might just come in handy. But miles of rugged campaign trail separate current reality from a November victory gallop, and Daniel Edward Lungren, the Golden State's sitting attorney general, is facing a tough race. In his bid for governor, the conservative Republican is pitted against California Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat's Democrat who once pronounced himself a liberal even truer than Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Observers call each candidate a near perfect embodiment of his party's ideals: Mr. Davis, the environmentally friendly social-program advocate; and Mr. Lungren, the business-friendly, pro-family crime fighter. Their stark ideological differences mean a clear choice for California voters-and frame a pivotal question for the Lungren camp: In a politically diverse state, whose most prominent political map pins include strident, lockstep regiments of gay activists in the north and Hollywood's trendy special interest juntas in the south, can a squeaky clean, vocally religious conservative grab the lion's share of the gubernatorial vote? In a state where voters choose candidates potluck-style from the left, center, and middle-right, can a straight-arrow guy who loves his God, his country, and Notre Dame football convince voters that right is all right? Mr. Lungren is about to find out. Trailing in the polls by double digits since winning the June primary, the GOP hopeful has lately closed the gap to just four points. And among citizens considered likely to vote, polls show the candidates running apace for a photo finish. If he wins, it won't be the first time Mr. Lungren has pieced together a victory from the patchwork of California politics. In 1978, he upset democratic incumbent Mark Hannaford for the Long Beach congressional seat; in 1990 he squeezed by Democrat Arlo Smith to become the state's attorney general. Each time, he's won without compromising his principles. As Gray Davis dances toward the center in an awkward series of Clintonian pirouettes, Mr. Lungren remains a staunch advocate of small government, individual responsibility, school vouchers, and tax relief. And as a "lifelong Catholic" (a politically bold self-descriptor he uses in a current TV ad), he confirms his pro-life position-with rape and incest exceptions. "The problem is if you straddle the fence too much philosophically, you get a philosophical hernia," Mr. Lungren says with an open smile, doffing the Stetson and leaning back to stretch his six-foot-two frame for perhaps the first time all day. "With me, what you see is what you get. You may not always agree, but you'll always know where I stand." It's past four in the afternoon at the Industry Hills Sheraton. The California Republican Party (CRP) minority outreach event at which Mr. Lungren was the headliner has long since disbanded. His eyes are those of a man who has had to be "on" for many hours, beginning with a mid-morning GOP reception, followed by a couple of hours on the CRP platform (with speech), then the aforementioned pow-wow, and now, this interview. Following the interview, Mr. Lungren will soldier through two more events before he can shed his white-on-green, elephant-patterned tie. The 18-hour whistlestop days are grueling, he admits, then grins: "But it's only seven days a week." Mr. Lungren has been running hard for a long time. His mother Lorraine-affectionately dubbed the "Supreme Allied Commander" by her seven children ("General wasn't good enough," Mr. Lungren laughs)-raised her brood in the family's Long Beach home and was an avid community volunteer. His father John, a Long Beach physician in private practice, also served as a battalion surgeon (and Purple Heart winner) in World War II. John and Lorraine Lungren instilled in their children love of family, self-discipline, service to others, and faith in God. And so, as Dan Lungren waxes philosophical at the conference table, the link between faith and politics isn't a question of why, but rather why not? "Making judgments informed in part by your religious experiences is not contradictory to making a judgment from the great documents of American history," he says. "The Declaration of Independence says that we are, in fact, free human beings as a result of a direct gift of our Creator. [Our rights] are not created in the Constitution; they are acknowledged in that document as having come from a spiritual source, our Creator. If we divorce our public policy debate from the spiritual component, we are dooming ourselves to failure." This faith-on-his-sleeve approach to government makes a perfect target for gubernatorial opponent Gray Davis, who has spent considerable campaign time painting Mr. Lungren as a recidivist right-winger. "I want to take California forward," Mr. Davis tells audiences: "My opponent wants to take California backward." Mr. Davis regularly lobs the abortion issue into the Lungren camp like a haggard cannon ball. In a recent TV ad, he assumed a fatherly pose on the corner of a desk and assured female viewers of his intent to protect their "right to choose," while asserting that Mr. Lungren would have them carry to term even the offspring of rape and incest. Mr. Lungren countered with a TV ad that attributed his pro-life stance to his Catholic beliefs ("This is the first time in history that someone who takes a mainstream Catholic view is considered an extremist," he told a reporter) and urged Mr. Davis to get back to the "major issues" of the campaign. The two candidates have drawn clear lines on issues like vouchers (Lungren for, Davis against), California's Defense of Marriage Act (Lungren for, Davis against), and toughness on crime (Davis dancing). They have discussed some of these during a series of debates. Mr. Lungren, a trained forensic tactician whose fiery style House Speaker Tip O'Neill once wrote brings down "thunder from the sky," originally suggested 18 debates. Mr. Davis knocked it down to five. When the candidates first squared off on a warm July evening in San Diego, Mr. Lungren emerged as the widely acknowledged victor. The debate was touted as a portent of the promised positive campaign. But the pair's August meeting in Fresno devolved into a mishmash of jabs and rejoinders so disjointed that one analyst branded the bout "mind-numbing." Critics also panned the September rematch in Sacramento. Some Lungren supporters blamed the boredom on the attorney general's move to soften some of his rhetoric-particularly on abortion. Penny Pullen, director of Life Advocacy Alliance and a former Illinois state legislator, says that a month ago she was "just wild about" Lungren's position on abortion. "We were very happy to see him raise the abortion issue in the first debate," she says. "He gained a lot respect for the confidence he showed in dealing with what the media thought would be a difficult issue." But the "lifelong Catholic" television ad, Ms. Pullen believes, is a mistake. "Mr. Lungren contributes to the public misconception that the cause of life is tied to the doctrine of one church and even dismisses the fundamental right to life as a side issue," she complained in her e-mail newsletter Life Advocacy Briefing. Ms. Pullen's "advice for others who may be observing the latest Lungren tactic: 'Don't try this at home!'" She emphasized to WORLD that her criticism should not be mistaken for opposition to his candidacy. Her most recent newsletter clarified, "Our concern is not that Mr. Lungren might back away from his long, consistent record of support for life-far from it. Our concern is that the professional 'strategists' who are advising him might, as so many of these self-anointed, pale-pastel experts do-election after election, state after state, district after district-cost him support with their own lack of conviction." It may be a streak of political pragmatism running through Mr. Lungren's campaign that's motivating his more circumspect handling of abortion as an issue in the larger contest. Why, after all, make abortion a centerpiece when it will almost certainly repel moderate voters who might otherwise mark their ballots his way? That pragmatism, however, may threaten Lungren's reputation as a straight shooter who denies that his legislative and policy decisions are motivated by anything other than his conscience. "I don't vote in certain ways ... because it's the politically correct thing to do," says Mr. Lungren. "I vote in many ways because I think all people are worthy in the eyes of God, and that there's value in every human being." And so, as the contest tightens, Mr. Davis is running negative campaign ads accusing Mr. Lungren of lying about his congressional votes on abortion. Mr. Lungren, meanwhile, is noting his opponent's fundraising ties to President Clinton and charging Mr. Davis with fabricating his voting record on California's now-successful three-strikes law. Concerns about moral integrity have become the backdrop to the campaign. How will the Republican candidate's plain-dealer style play to spin-dazed voters who seem convinced that firm convictions equal extremism? "We'll see," says Mr. Lungren, eyes twinkling at the challenge. "My idea is that people will respect you even if they disagree with you-if you have the courage of your convictions. I think the public looks for elected officials who stand for something. People may respond differently in the short run, but in the end I think that's what we still believe."

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