Candidate Al Checchi, a Democrat, recently took his campaign to the homes of California Republicans. GOP hopeful Dan Lungren was weak on polluters, Checchi told them in a mailing.
Lungren, the attorney general, had "failed to prosecute polluters aggressively," Checchi said. Lungren lashed back, saying Checchi's "dirt piece ... should be embarrassing."
It was the kind of bitter, Democrat-vs-Republican exchange once reserved for the last weeks before the November election. But California's new open primary has erupted into a free-for-all, with candidates hoping to poach voters from other parties in the June 2 primary.
In the process, they are dramatically accelerating the pace of the campaign and driving costs sky-high.
Until this year, voters here could cast ballots only for candidates who shared their party affiliation. Now, thanks to a 1996 ballot measure, California has joined Washington, Louisiana and Alaska as states where all the candidates regardless of party appear on a single list from which voters select their choice.
The top vote-getter in each party will advance to the general election.
Lungren is unopposed for the GOP nomination. But Checchi faces Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman. The Democratic candidates have charged into this uncharted territory seeking "crossovers," Republicans who will vote for them in the primary.
Checchi, who has already pumped some $30 million of his personal fortune into the campaign, started months ago with a blitz of television ads. Only recently have any of them mentioned that he was a Democrat.
"This campaign is the only one designed around the (blanket) primary, in the sense that we really have viewed every voter as a potential supporters," said Checchi's campaign manager, Darry Sragow.
In past years, Lungren would be conserving money and energy for the general election. But faced with the prospect of a weak showing as Republicans defect in the primary, he has taken to the airwaves with three ads of his own.
Lungren, too, is fishing for crossover votes.
"We know that we have to lock away our Republican base, but at the same time we have to make appeals to independents and conservative Democrats," said Lungren campaign director Dave Puglia.
Harman, meanwhile, once declared herself "the best Republican in the Democratic Party." She hopes to attract Republicans turned off by Lungren's opposition to abortion, said campaign manager Kam Kuwata.
But Kuwata says it's still the core Democratic vote which will settle on a nominee -- crossover voters can't carry the day.
Aides to Davis say they aren't making any aggressive pitches to Republicans. Tey do, however, believe Davis' military record and pro-business programs will attract some members of the GOP, said spokesman Chris Campana.
Elisabeth Gerber, who has studied primaries extensively as a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said open and blanket primaries tend to force candidates to the political center.
Checchi, with his promises to slash bureaucracy and put more police on the streets, offers a "textbook case of what you'd expect in a primary," she said.
A recent poll suggests such cross-party appeals are working, at Lungren's expense. The independent Public Policy Institute of California found that 26 percent of likely Republican voters plan to vote for one of the three major Democrats. Just 4 percent of Democrats surveyed said they planned to cross over to Lungren.
Gov. Pete Wilson, who has served two terms, is barred from seeking a third term.
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