CHECCHI WIELDS ADS EARLY IN RACE FOR CALIF. GOVERNOR: CANDIDATE IS IN STRONG SPOT AS DEM PRIMARY NEARS

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Three years after Steve Forbes launched an expensive but ultimately fruitless ad campaign well in advance of Iowa's presidential primary, another political newcomer is copying the model of spending early to gain name recognition.

But Al Checchi, former chairman of Northwest Airlines, is hoping for a better outcome in the Democratic primary race for California governor.

Mr. Checchi, virtually unknown in the state six months ago, started running ads in mid-November and has spent heavily since then. As of last week, he had run some 28 different ads not counting a handful of Spanish-language ones.

HOLDING OFF

On the other hand, his core opponent, California Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, did almost no advertising early in the race. Mr. Davis sat back and waited as Mr. Checchi and, beginning two months ago U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, spent millions of ad dollars.

Last week, a field poll found Messrs. Davis and Checchi locked in a virtual tie with four weeks until the election. Rep. Harman trailed in the poll.

Whether the closeness of the race means Mr. Checchi's early ad presence was a success or failure depends on who's talking.

"There is no sense in advertising until the voters are ready to listen," said Chris Compana, press secretary for Mr. Davis' campaign. "We felt the last four, five or six weeks are when voters' eyes and ears are more focused on the political scene."

Yet both camps, and several political consultants, agree Mr. Checchi's advertising may have played a role in convincing Sen. Dianne Feinstein not to run, and may have hurt Rep. Harman's chances. They also said California's new primary law, which allows crossover Republicans and independents as well as Democrats to vote, makes the impact of advertising in this year's June 2 primary harder to measure.

FEINSTEIN `LOOMED LARGE'

"When [Mr. Checchi] started advertising, Dianne Feinstein loomed large," said Don Sipple, a Republican consultant who lives in the state. "If her deciding not to run was because of his advertising, it was worth the money itself. It created a race with a chance of success."

Elena Stern, Mr. Checchi's press secretary, insists the strategy of getting in early paid off for a man who "started as an asterisk in the polls."

By comparison, "Gray Davis has been doing this for the last three decades. It's not at all that surprising that his numbers jumped," Ms. Stern said. "We are very pleased with our advertising."

BIZ BACKGROUND

Mr. Checchi's push started with biographical ads from Shrum Devine Donilon, Washington; other ads have stressed his business background, as well as positions on crime and education issues. When Rep. Harman's own ads briefly pushed up her poll numbers, Mr. Checchi began running comparative ads; last week, he launched one that compared his record with Mr. Davis'.

Rep. Harman's ads, from Morris & Carrick, New York and Los Angeles, have also included her biography and have mentioned pollution, jobs and crime. In recent weeks, they have also included a direct attack on Mr. Checchi, saying he is "distorting [Rep. Harman's] record" on some issues.

Mr. Davis' ads, via Doak, Carrier & O'Donnell, Washington, feature veiled references to Mr. Checchi's campaign spending, noting the lieutenant governor has "experience money can't buy."

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