Clinton Is Returning to Try to Put a Lock on California : Politics: The key is to remind voters how he has delivered in time of disaster. But he's dogged by affirmative action, immigration issues.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As part of the first major swing of his reelection campaign, President Clinton is headed to California this week with his treasury filling rapidly, his poll numbers in the state looking promising, yet needing one thing in his quest for the nation's biggest electoral prize: a change of subject.

In 19 previous trips to the state as President, Clinton has cultivated an image as the chief executive who ministers to California's needs through earthquake, flood, fire, military base closure and recession. Yet even with a payoff from all this now apparently in view, Clinton has been unable to turn the topic of his visits away from a vulnerability: the state's preoccupying social issues, led by affirmative action and immigration.

Each of his trips to California earlier this year has been dominated by those concerns, which reelection strategists see as Clinton weak points in a state he hopes to lock up early so that he can devote resources to other critical contests.

Some Democratic strategists assert that this fight over the agenda is already shaping up as the central element of the California campaign, no matter whom the Republicans pick as their candidate. In this view, Clinton must find a way to make the social issues secondary while promoting his record of service and portraying himself as a champion of moderates on such issues as abortion, gun control, health care and the environment.

"The winning message is what the President has done for the people of California and this country," said Bill Press, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "That's what the focus will be."

At least that's what the White House hopes. A top California Democratic consultant, who asked not to be identified, noted that Clinton "came out in April, he came out in July, and the coverage was dominated by affirmative action and immigration. That's not his strong suit, and that's troubling."

The plan is for Clinton to steer clear of those issues during this week's five-day trip, which combines fund-raising and public appearances.

The President began his four-state swing on Monday in Philadelphia. While visiting an upscale mall, Clinton kissed his first baby of the campaign season--4-month-old Kaitlin Thomas of Knoxville, Tenn.--and chowed down on cheese steaks and french fries with Mayor Ed Rendell.

The President also talked with community leaders about efforts to find new work for the closed Philadelphia Navy Yard, and in the evening attended a fund-raiser that brought in $600,000.

The President has political and fund-raising appearances scheduled for Thursday and Friday in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Diego.

Part of this itinerary could be disrupted if Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization reach agreement on extending PLO autonomy to the entire West Bank, an event that would occasion a full-dress signing ceremony in Washington on Thursday, which Clinton has promised to attend.

Aides said Monday, however, that a Mideast breakthrough this week is growing increasingly unlikely and that Clinton plans to stick with his plans to court California voters. His travel schedule also calls for stops in Jacksonville, Fla.; Miami, and Denver before he reaches San Francisco on Wednesday night.

Reelection officials expect the President to raise about $5 million at five fund-raisers on this trip.

Terence McAuliffe, the finance chairman of the reelection campaign, said he expects that with a late fall direct-mail appeal, the Clinton-Gore committee will have raised more money in less time than any previous White House incumbent.

"The fund-raising is off the charts," McAuliffe said. "We're eight months ahead of projections. Phase One--the money primary--has been won, in spades."

McAuliffe said that by the end of September, Clinton will have raised nearly $20 million of his full-year $25-million goal and spent less than $2.5 million, almost all of it on a series of television spots that ran early this summer.

"The clear goal was to come out and show strength and scare any potential primary opponents away. We've done that, and we've broken every record in presidential fund-raising," McAuliffe said.

While the reelection organization probably won't pick the managers of Clinton's California campaign until later this year, the state Democratic organization is laying the groundwork for next year's contest. The party is recruiting chairmen for about 10,000 key precincts in the state, a task that often isn't taken care of until at least spring of an election year.

The early organizing could help unify often fractious California Democrats.

Clinton's California trip comes at a time when, in contrast to earlier this year, favorable portents mark his reelection effort in the state. New poll figures show that while his job approval ratings have remained flat among state residents, his relative strength against potential Republican foes has been on the rise.

A Times Poll released last week showed Clinton leading slumping Gov. Pete Wilson by 19 percentage points, 57% to 38%, and with a 53%-42% lead over Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, whom he had trailed narrowly in March.

Another encouraging sign, pollsters say, is that Clinton's job approval rating was not dented by the summer's news of more military base closings in California, a development that sent panic through the White House. "He seems to have absorbed that bump in the road," said Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll, in San Francisco.

Democrats are also banking that the recent rightward tilt of the Republican presidential field will put the GOP out of step with California voters, who tend to be more moderate on such issues as abortion rights, gun control and the environment.

Clinton campaign officials clearly hope the President's current position will translate into the kind of early lock on the state and its 54 electoral votes that they achieved in 1992, when then-President George Bush essentially abandoned his campaign here by September. With so many more states likely to be at risk for Clinton this time, a big early margin in the largest state would be especially valuable.

But some Democratic strategists caution that the White House shouldn't count on a repeat of 1992, given the support Wilson generated in his gubernatorial campaign last year by taking tough stands on affirmative action and immigration.

The California Civil Rights Initiative--the proposition to end state affirmative action programs, expected to be on the state ballot next year--could prove particularly nettlesome for Clinton.

The Democratic strategists worry that the President could be caught in a polarized scenario in which, as one put it, "all the Democrats line up on one side [opposing the initiative] and all the Republicans on the other. That's a bad dynamic."

White House aides argue that Clinton is in a stronger position on immigration issues because he can point to expensive efforts to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and other initiatives.

Still, as one Democratic strategist put it: "There's a sense in which Democrats are never going to be viewed as stronger [than Republicans] on immigration control."

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