REDWOOD CITY, Calif.-In the last few days before Tuesday’s primary, California Democrats have awakened to a shocking realization. While they have been mesmerized by the roller-coaster ride of their three candidates for governor, state Attorney General Dan Lungren, the lone Republican seeking to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, quietly has demonstrated he may be very, very tough to beat in November.

Each of the three Democrats — businessman Al Checchi, Rep. Jane Harman and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis — has had a turn at the top of the polls, with Davis’s coming last and best. Meantime, Lungren, who figured to be overshadowed by the expensive Democratic shenanigans, has used the primary period to demonstrate, in the words of one Sacramento Democratic operative, "a helluva lot more political smarts than I ever suspected he possessed." As a result, the gangly, 51-year-old Notre Dame grad could well win a race that would make him a major figure in the national Republican lineup for 2000 and beyond.

Lungren’s plans for the state, which needs massive investments in its lagging education, transportation and water systems, are vague — as are Davis’s. But politically, he is far better off than he looked 18 months ago, in the wake of a 1996 election that was a loser for California Republicans from the presidential race right down to the state assembly contests.

After 10 years representing Long Beach in the House of Representatives, Lungren got himself elected California’s attorney general in 1990 and built a reputation as a tough law-and-order guy. But sharply declining crime rates have taken the edge off that issue, and Wilson’s penchant for picking fights has kept Republicans from cashing in on the booming economy. Democrats figured all they had to do to beat Lungren was to resurrect some of the votes he cast in collaboration with his classmate, Newt Gingrich, in the early 1980s, from restricting abortion rights to opposing reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

It may still turn out that they can depict him, in Davis’s words, as "Newt Gingrich with a smile." But the suspicion has dawned that Davis, a veteran of more than two decades in invisible offices like chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, assemblyman, state controller and lieutenant governor, and the embodiment of traditional Democratic interest-group politics, will have his hands full with the looser, camera-friendly Lungren in the series of debates they have pledged to begin soon after the primary, assuming Davis wins.

The Dan Lungren who came here last week on one of his final pre-primary stops showed a style reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. Visiting the Garfield Charter School, Lungren was as relaxed as Wilson had been stiff in a similar setting in Culver City a week earlier. It helped that Lungren was introduced by Ruben Barrales, the San Mateo County supervisor who grew up here and helped create the impressive experimental public elementary school for arts and technology. It helped even more that many in the audience knew Lungren had been instrumental in clearing the way for Barrales to be the first Latino Republican nominated for state office — an uphill November race for state controller.

Like Reagan, Lungren cast his talk as a series of personal anecdotes that held the ethnically diverse audience’s attention through the translations from English to Spanish. Well aware of the devastating erosion of Latino support for Republicans following Wilson’s Proposition 187, ending social services for illegal aliens (a proposition Lungren supported), he has made assiduous efforts to reach out to the growing Hispanic vote. Earlier this month, Lungren joined the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates in opposing Proposition 227 on Tuesday’s ballot, which would effectively end bilingual education and prescribe a year of English immersion for Spanish-speaking pupils. Wilson took the opposite stand. As a measure of the growing distance between the two Republicans, who were never particularly close, both men told me they took their opposing positions without ever talking to each other.

By his outreach, Lungren is appealing to moderate Republicans, independents and the broad swath of California voters who tell interviewers they are weary of the "wedge-issue" politics of the Wilson years and want a governor who will pull the state together. At the same time, Lungren, a devout Catholic, talks more openly of his religious faith and his moral values than anyone in this secular, not to say sybaritic, culture has done for a long time — a comforting message to many conservatives.

The Democrats know they have their work cut out for them.

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