Thursday, October 23, 2008

California party leaders beseech civility, but take off gloves

SACRAMENTO — The nasty tone of the presidential election spilled over onto the dais occupied by California's two party chairmen Wednesday, when Ron Nehring and Art Torres pointed fingers at each other for infractions they said the other's side has committed during the campaign.

Nehring, the GOP chief, assailed Democrats for a pair of physical assaults on GOP registration workers. Torres, the Democratic leader, returned fire by accusing Republicans of trying to suppress the vote, happily noting that a GOP operative was arrested this week for voter fraud.

The men, who spoke at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon, agreed on the need to be civil in political discourse, but didn't hesitate to underline their points with potshots.

"We've seen organized interference with voter registration activities," Nehring said. "A Republican registering voters was punched in the face and had 250 completed registration cards taken from him. ... These sorts of things are unacceptable in American politics and unfortunate. People in leadership positions have the responsibility to stand up to that."

That's precisely what Torres and other Democrats have said the GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, should have been doing at rallies in which Republican voters have yelled, "kill him," "bomb Obama," and "terrorist," referring to Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

"I have never in almost 30 years in politics, Advertisementever, encountered such virulent activities on the part of partisans," Torres said. "I find it disenchanting that Senator McCain is willing to end this race in disgrace because of the activities of his supporters at his rallies that they've never confronted until the very end when (McCain) confronted a woman and took away her microphone."

Torres also lamented the "name-calling" of the McCain campaign.

"I've also never seen the desperation in name-calling as I've seen ... in a presidential campaign," Torres said. "First, (Obama) is an elitist. Second, he's an Arab. Now, he's a socialist. And yesterday, Mel Martinez (U.S. senator of Florida) called him a communist. ... It's been disillusioning to American voters. And those reaching out for outright racism, the door has been opened by Republican supporters of McCain and Palin and they need to be stopped."

Polls have shown that the McCain campaign's attacks on Obama, which include charges that Obama was cozy with former Weatherman Bill Ayers, have backfired. Obama leads in most national polls and appears to have solid leads in many battleground states.

That political environment favors Democrats in California, said Torres, who predicted his party could capture two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

But Nehring said that if Democrats do gain legislative seats, it will be despite what he called an incompetent statewide strategy. Among the blunders, he said, were the Democrats' failed recall effort to unseat Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, last summer, and the Democrats' inability to field a strong candidate in a district that could have been won by a Democrat — the 15th Senate seat held by Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria.

"How can you be serious about getting a two-thirds vote in the Legislature when you blow up on a recall effort and can't run a credible candidate against Abel Maldonado?" Nehring said. "That just doesn't pencil out."

Nehring added that Assembly Democrats have also made a hash out of some of their targeted races. In the 78th District in San Diego, for instance, which has been in Republican hands but is considered up for grabs, Democrats are running the "most liberal Democrat" they could have nominated, Marty Block.

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