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Perot Takes Over Starring Role in California Primary

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The long and quixotic presidential primary season whimpers to a close Tuesday in California and five other states under circumstances unimaginable when it began: Two men who have persevered through dozens of clashes to lay claim to their parties’ nominations are being shadowed by the ghost campaign of a Texas billionaire whose name has yet to appear on a single ballot.

Even if he loses California to its former governor, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is likely to have clinched the Democratic nomination before the polls close in the state, based on his showings elsewhere.

President Bush, who began his reelection campaign as a virtual shoo-in and then saw his popularity plummet to unprecedented depths, will formally dispense of the persistent challenge from conservative Republican Patrick J. Buchanan.

Yet even as they might wish to exult over the close of the hard-fought primaries, Bush and Clinton find themselves playing second fiddle to maverick Ross Perot. The Texas businessman, leading in hypothetical general-election matchups in California and elsewhere, has become a powerful and unexpected force in the presidential race, even without a formal presence on the ballot.

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Grinning like a grizzled miner who has spotted a telltale glint, Perot signed off a six-state satellite pep rally on Friday with a pointed warning to Bush and Clinton. He ordered the band to strike up a tune: “California, Here I Come.”

Poised to announce his independent presidential bid next month, Perot has skimmed off much of the pre-primary attention in California, in part because the anti-climactic contest has served only as a prelude to the coming battle in the general election.

“Is there really a campaign?” San Francisco political consultant Clinton Reilly mockingly asked the other day.

All told, there are 348 Democratic and 201 Republican presidential delegates at stake Tuesday in California. The President has already clinched the GOP nomination and, according to a survey by the Associated Press, Clinton has 2,050 delegates. That is just 95 shy of the 2,145 he needs for a first-ballot nomination.

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The other five states holding presidential primaries on Tuesday--Ohio, New Jersey, Alabama, Montana and New Mexico--will dispense 352 delegates.

Across California, Tuesday’s primary will be drawn upon a canvas of voter discontent and concern that in-state political observers believe to be unprecedented since 1978, when a rebellious electorate endorsed Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limitation.

So far, the anger and fear have not fueled predictions of a big turnout; Secretary of State March Fong Eu has forecast that less than half of the state’s registered voters will cast ballots.

Voters appear to be struggling with profound worry, spawned by the persistent recession and enhanced by the fiery explosion of the Los Angeles riots. Interviews with supporters of Clinton, Bush and Perot throughout the state turned up strikingly similar expressions of the lack of faith in politics and politicians that has defined this political year.

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“People are just fed up,” said Jerry Bonnifield of Paso Robles, a 50-year-old disabled printer who plans to support Perot in November if “he halfway makes sense.”

“Too much finger-pointing and not enough action,” said William Smith of Fullerton, a 72-year-old retiree who supports Bush.

Even political veterans have looked on with dismay. Ed Zschau, the Republican who in 1986 came close to toppling Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston from the Senate, reflected last week that the presidential contest seems disconnected from voters’ lives.

“I should be used to this,” he said, “but (the campaign) just seems so shallow and so phony as opposed to what people are seeing. They are not looking for a showman, but one who understands the problems they see and has the courage of his convictions.”

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For all the surface somnolence of the primary, California will be the most important state in the nation come November, with its 54 electoral votes making up 20% of the 270 needed to win the presidency. And that, more than anything else, has sent candidates flocking to the Golden State in recent days.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has had to contend not only with Perot’s apparent realignment of the fall race, but the troublesome presence of Brown as well. While a Los Angeles Times Poll taken two weeks ago showed Clinton with a 10 percentage-point lead among likely voters, a survey released last week by the Mason-Dixon polling organization showed the two men tied in California.

Mindful that a Brown victory--or even a tight race--could exacerbate concerns about his vulnerability this fall, Clinton scrapped plans to campaign in Ohio and New Jersey this weekend and stayed in California.

Clinton has teamed a general-election pitch to Republicans and independents with a simultaneous appeal to traditional Democratic voting blocs, including blacks and labor organizations.

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“Between now and November, we’ve got to connect in California, and California requires a commitment to do that,” said Phil Angelides, the state Democratic chairman who endorsed Clinton on Thursday. “We have not worked our base and we need to.”

In addition to carefully chosen campaign events, Clinton has assaulted the airwaves with commercials touting his commitment to education and other social concerns. But many Democratic insiders continue to worry that Clinton has not sweetened his image among California’s voters, whose clearest glimpse of him occurred earlier this year during the twin tempests over allegations of womanizing and his draft record during the Vietnam War.

“It’s hard to make an immediate transition from being a National Enquirer poster boy to highly regarded icon,” Reilly said. “So what he clearly has to do is create a sort of interregnum, an intermission in the campaign before we get the second reel.”

Let Clinton play the game by the tactical rules; Brown was closing out his campaign the same way he began, by swimming--how else?--against the tide. No statewide polling, no television advertising. On California’s airwaves, which shrieked with competing political advertisements, Brown was a no-show.

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“It’s not that we can’t afford it,” said Brown campaign manager Jodie Evans, insisting the lack of ads was strategic. “You turn on the television and all you see are these political ads paid for by political contributions and no one’s out campaigning. And to be a part of that?”

In California and in other states where he has campaigned in recent days, Brown has taken pains to commiserate with lower-income voters and engage in the television-friendly act of visiting local schools.

At each event, he has reinforced his central campaign theme--that the country’s political system has served the wealthy and not the poor.

Evans said Brown’s insurgent effort had been buoyed in recent days by swarms of telephone calls from interested voters. But even some of his partisans remain dubious about his chances of embarrassing Clinton with a win.

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Tom Quinn, a veteran of previous Brown campaigns in California and nationally, said that his mother was considering a vote for Clinton on the grounds that a weakened nominee was more susceptible to defeat by Perot.

“If there was no Perot in the race, Jerry would have a better chance,” he said.

Bush also spent part of the weekend campaigning in California, trying to knock down reports of disarray in his campaign organization and seeking an affinity with the state’s voters that has always eluded him.

While the most recent Times Poll showed his job-approval rating among California voters had slumped to 35%, the President’s campaign aides continue to exude public confidence.

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“People are generally frustrated with the way things are going in America, and I don’t think they particularly blame it on any particular person,” said George Gorton, a Sonoma-based GOP strategist and a senior counsel to the Bush campaign.

The President’s effort to connect with California Republicans has been aided in part by challenger Buchanan’s decision to curb his anti-Bush rhetoric as the primary approached.

It was testament to Buchanan’s disappearance and Perot’s ascendancy that the former television commentator spent much time in the waning days of his campaign taking credit for the strength of the Texan’s anti-politics movement.

“We built this,” he said. “We helped build and shape and give voice and force to this national protest movement. And it has grown and moved on and exploded.”

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California’s newfound enchantment with Perot--evidenced in a recent Times Poll showing him easily defeating Bush and Clinton--inspired more than a little frustration among the other candidates’ partisans. In large part, they are bewildered that a campaign that began with unprecedented demands for specifics has become the captive of a man who has thus far declined to discuss many major issues.

“People who are smart are supporting Perot out of anger and disenchantment, and not noticing that the music and the words aren’t fitting together,” said Evans, the manager of Brown’s presidential bid.

Perot did not so much as step into California during the primary countdown, not that it mattered.

“He’s probably the best politician on the scene since (Ronald) Reagan, " said Quinn, the Brown adviser. “It’s fashionable to call him the ‘flavor of the month.’ He may well end up being the flavor of the year, maybe the flavor of the decade.”

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Whether or not Perot has staying power, his presence has underscored the weaknesses of Bush and Clinton. In California, for instance, the Times Poll found them drawing the support of less than half of the voters in their own party.

That hard judgment was of particular concern to Democrats, who have not won California in the presidential election since 1964, when incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson beat Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Even the man whose job it is to enthuse his fellow Democrats does not sound particularly optimistic.

“We’re still on a downward movement in terms of belief in politics,” said Angelides, the California state party chairman. “People in this state are hurting very badly. They’re consumed with their own problems, and there is still a lot of fear. In the private sector, it’s not getting better. . . .

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“People are either going to be very engaged and believe the process makes a difference or they’re not because they’re not sure of its relevance. We have not yet made the case that we’re going to make a difference. We’re trying, but we’ve got a distance to travel.”


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