Clinton Seeking a Golden Opportunity in California : Politics: He hopes to defy history in a state where a Democrat hasn't won a presidential race since 1964.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton wakes up today in California, where, sure as the earth moves and the waves crash, Democrats lose the elections that matter.

Take the presidency, a position in which Clinton, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, is acutely interested.

The last time a Democrat won California in a presidential election, Bill Clinton was a gangly freshman at Georgetown University.

Now, gray-haired and stout 28 years later, Clinton comes to a California where Democratic political activists are more heartened by the electoral environment than they have been in years. And at the same time, they are more concerned than ever about Democratic chances for victory in November.

The next few weeks, they say, will foretell whether Clinton can leave the mat where he has been pummeled, brush himself off and become, in the minds of California voters, a candidate who can win.

These weeks are crucial, not only because of the 348 convention delegates at stake in the June 2 primary but also for the state's importance in the fall, when California will award one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

"He has an incredible opportunity to introduce himself," said Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles lawyer and political veteran who is overseeing Clinton's campaign.

To date, the brawl of the campaign and the succession of crises suffered by Clinton have kept him largely out of California, but for some fund-raising forays and a trip last week to tour riot-devastated Los Angeles. Today and Sunday, he campaigns in San Diego and Los Angeles counties and in San Francisco before heading back east.

Clinton's necessary focus on other states has cost him in terms of building either deep or broad support, state Democrats believe. In Northern California, the stronghold where Democrats must have a large following to counter the Republican advantage in the South, longtime Democratic activist Duane Garrett said Clinton is "really nonexistent."

"My advice to Clinton would have been to come to California and rent a house and not leave until it's over," said Garrett, the national co-chair for Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential bid.

There is ample precedent for Democrats to worry over California. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson thrashed Republican Barry Goldwater by 18 percentage points in 1964 has a Democrat triumphed here in November. President Ford defeated Jimmy Carter by an eyelash in 1976 before Ronald Reagan swept to two straight landslides.

President Bush defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 by 3 percentage points, a defeat whose relative closeness has inspired Democrats to hope for victory this November.

Bush, after all, lacks the home-court advantage shared by Presidents Reagan and Nixon before him--he was raised in Connecticut, not California. And the President's victory occurred a political lifetime ago. Since 1988, the economy has soured, and Bush has built up a presidential record that he must defend.

During his presidency, Bush has angered minorities, environmentalists and voters who favor abortion rights, three significant blocs in California.

"There are things that George Bush got away with in 1988 that I don't believe he will get away with in 1992, whoever is the nominee," said Kam Kuwata, who has managed several California races. "If we had a booming economy, and the President on the right side on the environment and choice, boasting of the best schools in the world . . . Bush would be a shoo-in."

But even with a weakened economy and growing dissatisfaction with Bush's handling of the nation's domestic problems, the President still proves more popular in California than Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times Poll published late last month showed Bush defeating the Arkansas governor 49%-38%, even though more than half of those polled disapproved of the way Bush was governing. More than half of the Democrats polled had an unfavorable impression of Clinton, while almost half said he did not have the "honesty and integrity" to be President.

The same poll showed former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. beating Clinton 51% to 37% among California Democrats.

Those numbers underscored the need for Clinton to aggressively reintroduce himself to California voters, Democratic strategists inside and outside the campaign believe.

"As usual, California is so far removed from the battlefront of the primary system that all they hear is the top of the news, which unfortunately for Clinton has been negative," said Bill Carrick, who ran U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's 1988 presidential bid. "The first step is to use the primary to do a little rehab."

The biggest risk for Clinton, many Democratic activists agree, is the temptation to focus on the primary challenge posed by Brown, to the detriment of appealing to the so-called swing voters whose support is essential in the fall.

California's deciding voting bloc, they point out, will likely be the suburbanites who live in places like Moreno Valley, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, up the coast in Ventura County, and the similar pockets that surround the Bay Area and Sacramento. Increasingly, those largely inland suburbs have proven to be the general election battleground.

Clinton's itinerary for the next week reflects his campaign's interest in the suburbs, where voters are less traditional in their party leanings and tend toward the fiscally conservative and socially liberal, as well as the traditional Democratic strongholds in the inner city.

Among the audiences, some of which will be reached by satellite, are El Cajon, Universal City, Moreno Valley, the Sacramento area and the suburban Bay Area. On Thursday, Clinton will deliver what aides have billed as a major education address in East Los Angeles.

The suburban voters, according to Anthony Podesta, who ran Dukakis' California campaign, "are a group he needs to work hard on if he's going to make it on the West Coast. The lunch bucket Democrat doesn't get you to a majority."

In previous primaries and in polls taken of California voters, Clinton has not yet impressed those voters despite substantive speeches on issues tailor-made for them--education, welfare reform, tax savings for the middle class.

"On a message front, he has the potential to appeal to those people," said Carrick. "But no one's heard that yet. They have got to hear that."

But while Democrats across the state say that Clinton does not yet have a rapt following, he does have potential.

"Californians definitely have an inherent mistrust of how much government can do," said John Emerson, chief deputy to Los Angeles City Attorney James K. Hahn, a senior strategist for 1984 and '88 candidate Gary Hart, and now a Clinton backer. "On the other hand, there is a legacy in this state of dramatic activism by government in allowing us to live here--bringing us water systems, educational systems. . . . The Clinton campaign message of reinvigorating government has potential to do well in California."

Strategically, the Clinton campaign has taken its cues from both the successes and the ultimate general election failure of Dukakis.

Dukakis set in motion a strong field organization that made the general election race tighter. But Dukakis failed to positively impress Californians during the late spring--and suffered for it when he came under attack in the summer and fall.

"He didn't fill up the empty vessel, so when he was attacked there was nothing there," said Mickey Kantor, of Clinton's campaign. "Bill Clinton is not going to let that happen."

Clinton also has an advantage that few Democratic nominees have had--an organization rife with Californians. Besides Kantor, a looming presence over the campaign, there is U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, who has campaigned for Clinton across the country. Clinton's press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, recently directed a successful San Francisco mayoral race. Other California veterans are sprinkled throughout the campaign structure.

The Arkansas governor's aides believe that the discontent among the public about politics in general, and Bush's opposition to positions popular in California, like abortion rights, will prove potent weapons in the fall.

"Overall, the economy draws everyone in," said George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's deputy campaign manager. "Underneath that, environment and choice are going to be hot buttons (to push) in California."

But others strike a more cautionary note. Carrick, who is presently advising former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein in her bid for the U.S. Senate, believes that Clinton will have to work hard to pull off the first victory in 28 years.

"Clinton's got problems," he said. "He has a long way to go before he can get in a position to win here."

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