'Nerds' seek revenge in Californian poll: Apathy marks the run up to the contest for governor, writes Phil Reeves in Los Angeles

THERE WAS a time when Californians really knew how to fight an election. Take, for example, the campaign of Upton Sinclair, the novelist and socialist who set out to become governor of the Golden State during the Depression.

Hollywood studios produced fake newsreels, depicting hordes of unsavoury-looking drifters disembarking from trains in the hope of joining Sinclair's socialist utopia on the palm-dotted Pacific coast. Cecil B De Mille, Louis Mayer and other moguls threatened to move the film industry to Florida or New York if he won.

William Randolph Hearst, the father of 'yellow journalism', who was with his mistress, Marion Davies , in Germany seeking an audience with Hitler, sent orders for his editors to spoil the Democrat's campaign. There was wild distortion, subterfuge, attack ads, and skulduggery galore. But it was a political event; everyone knew it was happening.

Sixty years on, the situation is much altered. On 7 June, primaries will be held for the governorship of California, the nation's most populous state. In the past the job has attracted some of the most outstanding, and idiosyncratic, politicians - including Earl Warren (later, US chief justice, and head of the commission that investigated John Kennedy's assassination), Jerry Brown (three times contender for the Democratic presidential nomination) and Ronald Reagan. The victor is automatically considered to be on the shortlist for the presidency. Yet, so far, Californians are about as interested in it as they are in watching cricket.

This is the more surprising as the race involves an unusual cast of characters. Twenty-five years ago Tom Hayden was facing five years in prison for fermenting the riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. He was one of the 'Chicago Eight', a fiery radical opposed to the Vietnam war. In 1972, his conviction was overturned. He settled into a more sedate career in the state legislature, married Jane Fonda, and played a big role in the failed attempt to introduce California's 'Big Green' environmental initiative.

Mr Hayden acknowledges he has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination but says he is standing to draw attention to the iniquitous influence of big money and lobbying in politics. Like Mr Brown, he has limited campaign contributions: his maximum is dollars 94 (pounds 61). His opponents are John Garamendi, a former star university football player who is state insurance commissioner, and Kathleen Brown, California's treasurer. Ms Brown belongs to one of America's political dynasties - she is Mr Brown's sister and the daughter of a revered former governor, Edmund 'Pat' Brown.

Although Ms Brown is the favourite for the nomination, the outcome will be settled by a minority of registered electors. Voting in California has been declining steadily, corroded by apathy and a perception that the political system is corrupt, wasteful and unrepresentative - a view reinforced by a seven-year FBI investigation into the state legislature that has exposed racketeering and bribery. The turn-out at the last election was 41 per cent, an all-time low.

The effect of this is to warp the political agenda in the direction of affluent whites. Non-Latino whites formed 55 per cent of the state's voting-age population, but they accounted for 79 per cent of the votes cast in 1992. Blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic groups comprised 45 per cent - but only 21 per cent voted. The alienated remainder stayed away.

It is no surprise, then, that Pete Wilson, the incumbent Republican Governor, is fighting the election on two issues in which middle-class whites have an almost obsessive interest: crime and illegal immigration. When Mr Wilson got the job four years ago, he was loathed by much of the party's right wing for his moderate views. He has since sought to make amends by building more prisons, cutting services, introducing stringent anti-crime laws, and waging war on illegal immigrants from Mexico. In a blatant election-year stunt, he is suing the US government for a refund of dollars 2bn California has spent jailing 'illegal aliens'. He is less vocal about the contribution that the same section of society makes to the local economy by working for low wages in the agricultural, manufacturing and service industries. In general, California's lacklustre economy - one of Ms Brown's central campaign issues - is a matter he prefers to play down.

Yet, for some, Mr Wilson is still too wet. This is why Ron Unz, an ultra-conservative whizz-kid from the computer software business has sunk dollars 1m into his bid for the Republican nomination. Mr Unz, a Harvard-educated theoretical physicist who studied at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking, is only 32. But what he lacks in years is counterbalanced by his IQ of 214. His campaign, dubbed the 'revenge of the nerds', has already run into turbulence: this week the Wall Street Journal published a letter from a former business partner who alleged that Mr Unz ruthlessly seized control of their jointly run company.

All this has the makings of great political theatre. The only pity is that many of the people with the power at the ballot box to determine the outcome either couldn't give two hoots, or are so sickened by the political process that they have given up hope. The chances of matching the excitement of Upton Sinclair's failed race 60 years ago are therefore, sadly, nil.

(Photographs omitted)

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