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Big Bucks Fuel California Race

Looking like a half-billion bucks with his California tan and picket-fence smile, Al Checchi rests his feet atop a conference room table and ponders the shine in his shoes.

"With my kind of money," he says, "I don't have to trim what I say."

The declaration is issued halfway into a two-hour conversation about his race for governor, a campaign in which no trimming will be necessary: Checchi's budget, like his confidence, has no bounds.

He owns the deepest pockets in a Democratic primary that is shaping up to be one of the country's best and most expensive races. The winner faces Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, whose shaky start has some GOP leaders worried about November.

The stakes couldn't be higher. The next California governor winner will run the world's seventh-largest economy, help draft state redistricting maps that could tilt control of Congress and instantly become a player in the 2000 presidential campaign.

"This one's for all the marbles," said GOP political consultant Leslie Goodman.

Called "Checkbook Checchi" by his detractors, the 49-year-old investor amassed a $600 million fortune at Marriott, Walt Disney and Northwest Airlines. He has already spent nearly $9 million on TV ads, a state primary record, to buy himself name recognition.

A blip in the polls late last year, Checchi was favored by 15 percent of primary voters in a poll conducted this week.

That puts him even with rapidly rising Rep. Jane Harman, who entered the race March 10, ten days after her first TV ads ran. Focusing on her experience in Congress, in business and as a mother, her $3 million ad blitz helped give the little-known lawmaker a 17 percent showing in the latest Field Poll.

Though not as rich as Checchi, Harman isn't hurting. The 52-year-old congresswoman is married to Sidney Harman, an electronic executive worth about $15 million.

Running a weak third is Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a respected and long-serving member of the Democratic establishment who is having trouble getting traction against his wealthy foes. He has raised about $4 million, not enough to be on TV yet.

"Most voters want you to win the governorship, not buy it," Davis, 54, said.

A similar poll last month had David six points up over Checchi, suggesting that Harman's made-by-TV surge came at his expense.

Yet the June 2 primary is still up for grabs; almost 30 percent of voters are still undecided. All three major Democrats address the state Democratic Party convention this weekend.

Mervin Field, one of the state's leading pollsters, said the race is tough to predict because this is the first year for California's open primary that will put Republican and Democratic candidates on a single ballot. There also is no precedent for Checchi- and Harman-sized wallets.

"They're throwing away money like drunken sailors walking the wharf with holes in teir pockets," Field said.

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