As a congressman, as state attorney general and now as the Republican candidate for governor, Dan Lungren developed and carefully nurtured a reputation for gritty candor, even when his utterances were less than popular.

Perhaps the best example occurred when he was officially launching his campaign for governor and called for a religion-based moral revival to counteract crime and other social ills, thus ignoring a political no-no.

“All I can do is be me, be myself” the strongly Catholic Lungren explained. “They (voters) want to vote for real people and generally speaking . . . they can pick out a phony. I can’t be anyone else other than who I am.”

With the three Democratic candidates clearly basing their campaign themes on polls and focus groups, no matter how thinly reasoned, Lungren’s here-I-am-like-it-or-not approach is refreshing. Indeed, while some Republican strategists wince at Lungren’s frankness, others believe that it may work to his advantage in overcoming voters’ reservations about specific positions, such as his opposition to abortion.

All of that said, Lungren may be undercutting himself by waffling on two of the more emotion-laden issues bouncing around during this campaign year: bilingual education and ownership restrictions on military-style firearms colloquially known as “assault rifles.”

There’s a June primary ballot measure, Proposition 227, that would largely replace all bilingual education programs with one year of English immersion, sponsored by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz.

While most Republicans — including the state party itself — are backing the Unz measure, Lungren has refused to take a position, saying he needed more information and worrying aloud that the Unz matter would merely substitute one state mandate for another, not leaving the issue to local school officials.

Politically, Lungren clearly is reluctant to endorse a measure that is widely condemned by Latino leaders — even if Latino voters themselves are divided — because he wants to try to lure Latinos back to Republican candidates.

This week, he seized upon a court decision holding that the state bilingual education mandate expired more than a decade ago, saying that if the ruling stands, “it appears to take care of the problem that I have had with a mandate for bilingual education” and may, therefore, render the Unz initiative unnecessary. Lungren hinted that he may eventually oppose the measure, but still is refusing to take a position.

An unartfully drafted, logic-defying state law that specified assault weapons be prohibited in private ownership was invalidated by a state appellate court, saying it violated the separation of government powers.

The decision — not unlike the ruling on bilingual education — removed some of the political heat from Lungren, because he was under fire from both pro- and anti-gun control forces for his handling of the law. Gunners rapped Lungren for switching legal positions on the assault rifle issue during court proceedings after anti-gunners started criticizing his administration of the law, even though he says it was an honest change of legal opinion.

Democrats in the Legislature are now pushing a revised assault rifle measure that would be even broader in its application and thus incur even more wrath from gun owners. Lungren is ducking the issue again, saying his office’s involvement in the underlying lawsuit makes it impossible for him to take a position on what controls, if any, should be placed on the weapons.

That’s not good enough for zealots on both sides. And it’s not good enough for someone who says he should be elected governor because he’s a straight shooter — no pun intended, of course.

DAN WALTERS’ column appears daily, except Saturday. E-mail: [email protected]; mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (916) 444-7838.

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