By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor
One of the benefits of participation in an off-year special election is that political candidates don't have to share the stage with a lot of other people. That also happens to be one of the chief drawbacks. Without all the background noise from others' political ads and townhall rhetoric, their every move, whether brilliantly calculated or more clumsily unveiled, becomes fresh fodder for another day of media scrutiny.
The lucky ones this year are the two surviving candidates for the 16th District seat in the California State Senate, Republican Andy Vidak and Democrat Leticia Perez. After southeast Bakersfield voters select a Ward 1 City Council representative Tuesday, Perez and Vidak will have the whole show to themselves until July 23.
Vidak and Perez didn't exactly distinguish themselves as the savviest of campaigners leading up to the May 21 primary, but the other candidates in the five-person field, by virtue of their long-long-long-shot status (to be kind), created a forgiving atmosphere.
The gloves come off now, though, and any major gaffe, such as invoking a deity in campaign literature, could be fatal. Perez in particular walks a fine line: Theoretically speaking, Vidak has to improve his Election Day performance only infinitesimally from two weeks ago, when he won 49.82 percent of the vote. In a district the size of the 16th, that means he failed to win the seat outright last month by a margin roughly equivalent to the number of registered voters on your block.
So, how does Vidak close the deal? How does Perez overcome Vidak's 6-point edge from the primary? By taking my advice:
* Perez, a Kern County supervisor who took office only five months ago, needs to toughen up and keep talking to news organizations even if she again finds herself privately irritated by perceived opposition or antagonism. Otherwise she looks like a pouting princess.
* Vidak, a Hanford cherry grower, needs to demonstrate that his vision extends beyond the insular, oversuspicious world of Kings County, where "Get U.S. out of the U.N." signs along the road are not uncommon. It's one thing for Hanford to elect a city councilman who rants from the dais about the evils of Agenda 21, the voluntary, non-binding, utterly benign United Nations document that addresses world poverty and sustainable development. It's quite another to produce a state senator who hears black helicopters every time someone talks about state education guidelines or international cooperation. Is that Vidak? We hope not, but we can't be sure just yet.
* Perez needs to reel in her husband. As an independent, mostly uninvolved spouse, Fernando Jara is an asset, but his public profile just keeps growing. He's an ordained minister and reformed U.S. intelligence operative who has pulled himself up and out of the grips of drugs and crime to run a celebrated men's recovery center. Meanwhile, his wife is running for office. It never looks good when a candidate's spouse, man or woman, wanders onto the stage too often. If Perez wants to portray herself as a leader, she needs to be the unambiguous star of her own campaign.
* Vidak needs to ditch the TV ads claiming his opponent and her rich friends are running negative ads against him. He'd better, that is, if he wants to keep claiming, with any credibility, that his campaign is "positive" -- while his rich friends keep buying up ads that do little more than slam Perez.
He also needs to put on his big-boy pants and debate Perez, something he hasn't been willing to do thus far. That means, of course, that he'll have to firm up his positions on some issues.
Now shake hands, you two, and give us a good show. If we're going to climb out of the pool on July 23, it's going to have to be for a pretty good reason.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.