June 1, 1998
Voters in California will determine Tuesday the winner of the Democratic primary for governor. But will the race be decided by television campaign ads? NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels of KQED San Francisco has the story.
SPENCER MICHELS:In the California primary election, this is a very unusual scene: a candidate -- in this case Democratic businessman Al Checchi--out on the stump, hustling votes. For this has been called a "virtual campaign" played out in TV commercials.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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A "virtual campaign."
SPOKESPERSON: (COMMERCIAL "REAL WORLD") He's built a career in business, not politics, leading in the revival of three major corporations,
SPENCER MICHELS: 49-year-old Checchi with a personal fortune of $700 million had the money to blanket the airwaves and spend $40 million of it on TV. He started seven months before the primary.
SPOKESPERSON: (COMMERCIAL "REAL WORLD") When Northwest Airlines was on the ropes, he managed far-reaching change, brought management and workers together, and now there are 10,000 more jobs than on the day he started.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jane Harman--a Democratic congresswoman from Los Angeles-was even harder to find on the campaign trail, partly because she's been in Washington. Like Checchi, she spent her family money too (10 to 13 million dollars of it)--to get her name and her message on the air.
SPOKESPERSON: (JANE HARMAN COMMERCIAL) Chief counsel of a senate judiciary subcommittee; deputy cabinet secretary for President Carter; counsel to the Defense Department; 15 years in the private sector; three terms in Congress; mother of four. Jane Harman.
SPENCER MICHELS: Until she bought the airtime, Harman was little known outside her district. She said the ads were a necessary evil.
JANE HARMAN: To reach 32 million people, or the voters that will actually vote, requires television. The costs of this campaign are scandalous, and we need campaign finance reform to limit the cost of campaigns.
SPENCER MICHELS:Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis-the least wealthy of the three Democratic candidates for governor --started out the best known of the three. But he was languishing in the polls. Until he began his TV campaign,--expected to cost about $5 million.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: When you're alone in the governor's office all the money in the world won't buy you what you need to make the tough decisions. Gray Davis: chief of staff to a governor, assemblyman, controller, lieutenant governor.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis's ads--just the fact that they were on the air--helped propel him into first place in the polls.
GRAY DAVIS: Television validates your candidacy. And until about two weeks ago I was not on television. Now people realize they have a different choice.
SPENCER MICHELS: The candidates' ads were aimed at both broad voting groups and to some target groups. Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.
MARK BALDASSARE: This the first election in California where all the candidates are taking the Latino vote seriously.
(COMMERCIAL IN SPANISH)
SPENCER MICHELS: Both Harman and Checchi ran ads in Spanish, aware that 13 percent of California's registered voters are Hispanic.
(CHECCHI COMMERCIAL IN SPANISH)
The Hispanic vote.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hardly anyone had heard of Checchi before he began his ad campaign. So his early spots tried to remedy that.
SPENCER MICHELS: The ads achieved their goal as students at this rally in Vallejo showed.
KIDS CHANTING: Checchi, Checchi, Checchi--
SPENCER MICHELS: With his name now practically a household word, Checchi could concentrate on the issues. But political science Professor Bruce Cain contends that real issues among the Democrats were scarce.
BRUCE CAIN, University of California, Berkeley: They all are what we would call moderate Democrats. There is no card-carrying liberal in the bunch. All of them favor the death penalty; all of them are worried about economic growth. I think for the most part it's going to be an election that hinges on personality and the effect of the ads, rather than differences in issue positions.
SPENCER MICHELS: Cain says that money was the real issue.
BRUCE CAIN: It is very disturbing that the entry costs for California politics is about the same as the entry costs for national politics. It really excludes a lot of people.
GRAY DAVIS: I'm running against Fort Knox-I mean--Mr. Checchi is the 312th richest person in America.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis made his opponents' wealth as a campaign issue.
GRAY DAVIS: My opponents have spent most of their adult life-in one case all of his adult life--in the other case a good portion of her adult life, making money and getting rich. I think that's wonderful; that's the American way. But I spent my entire life in service to you. Let's do it on June 2nd. Let's sound a resounding signal that working people matter! (Applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: Much of Davis's time was spent soliciting contributions. He's regarded as a master fundraiser. He has the support of numerous labor unions, including the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters.
MARTIN MADDALONI, Plumbers and Pipefitters Union: I'd like to present to the governor for all the men and women, as members of the united association, an additional $50,000 from our-(applause and cheers)--
SPENCER MICHELS: That money went to TV commercials, and those commercials themselves became another issue. Checchi ran several attacking Harman's record.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: In Congress, Jane Harman has missed 63 percent of the votes this year. She even voted against stronger food safety laws--Jane Harman, a record you can't trust.
SPENCER MICHELS: Outraged, Harman, fired back via paid commercials.
JANE HARMAN: (CAMPAIGN AD) Al Checchi is attacking me and my vote to support President Clinton's balanced budget and distorting my record on senior citizens. Mr. Checchi can waste his money attacking me. I'll spend my time on real problems.
SPENCER MICHELS: Checchi says his ads were factual and perfectly legitimate.
AL CHECCHI: 90 per cent of what I put on television has not even mentioned anything about my opponents. It has all been about my positions. And now, when we talk about their positions on the issues, places where they have publicly disagreed with me -- and I just pointed out on television--they're screaming foul. I find that silly.
SPENCER MICHELS: Harman acknowledged that Checchi's TV spots really hurt her.
JANE HARMAN: Television has been abused in this race; I was the victim of gross false advertising against me for an entire month and wasn't able financially to defend myself and fell precipitously in the polls because of that.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: The truth about Jane Harman's record-
SPENCER MICHELS: By late May--after her spots began running--she was moving back up in the polls. But all three candidates' reliance on TV has had negative repercussions, according to Bruce Cain.
Informing the public?
BRUCE CAIN: Because it happens so quickly, and because it happens through the media, of these 30 second spots, what people learn about the candidates is extremely superficial. And so you don't really get acquainted with a person's philosophy, his ideas, his style of governance in office.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis--often accused of lack of charisma-- says he says he doesn't want TV defining him.
GRAY DAVIS: The people of this state are not looking for Jay Leno, or some charismatic-laden individual to be governor. The bottom line is people want someone who is competent, who shows up for work everyday, who can be a leader, and who gets things done.
SPENCER MICHELS: The winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly face conservative Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren in November. But Democrats can vote for a Republican candidate in June if they wish. Because of a new law, all California voters can cast ballots in the primary for any candidate regardless of party. Moderate Democrats could pick up a few votes from GOP voters. That fact, plus the personalities and wealth of the candidates, has intrigued political scientists like Mark Baldassare.
MARK BALDASSARE: This is the most interesting election that I've ever seen in California, partly because it's an open primary, and for the first time the outcome of elections is dependent upon not what just goes on within one party but how independent voters-which are one in six voters in California-feel about the elections and how voters from other parties are responding to the candidates.
DAN LUNGREN: It is a little unusual being the only Republican of three Democrats, but-
SPENCER MICHELS: The three Democrats plus Republican Lungren met in two televised debates. Lungren stood above the fray, watching Checchi, Harman and Davis squabble.
JANE HARMAN: In Al Checchi we have a financial wheeler-dealer who is attempting a corporate take-over of California. And I say our state is not for sale.
SPENCER MICHELS: Davis said he wanted to concentrate on substantive issues but couldn't.
GRAY DAVIS: Unfortunately Mr. Checchi's advertising and his attacks on the rest of us on this stage have made that very difficult to do. But, make no mistake, these attacks have taken the campaign down a path that none of the rest of us wanted to go.
AL CHECCHI: I've also been criticized by my opponents for spending my own money in this campaign, but I'd rather spend my own money and say what I believe. I won't owe anything to anyone but the people of California, and that's the way it should be.
SPENCER MICHELS: Californians had a hard time viewing the debates, since they were not aired in prime time by most major TV stations. Even in newscasts, the election received scant attention, leaving many California voters to judge the candidates only by their 30-second commercials--both negative and positive.