President Clinton's efforts to make the GOP concede California early in the election season are on the verge of success--or at least that's the fear of many prominent state Republicans.
As Clinton arrives in Los Angeles today for a two-day visit to the state, Republican leaders are worried that his current lead in the polls over Sen. Bob Dole, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, may persuade the national Republican campaign to put up only a token fight in California and save precious financial resources for Midwestern and border-state races that presumably will be tighter.
A decision of that kind would mark a victory for Clinton's three-year strategy of lavishing federal money and attention on the Golden State--and, importantly, would allow him to shift his own campaign resources elsewhere.
State Republicans fear that a less active GOP presidential effort on their turf would seriously hurt party candidates for Congress and the Legislature, as happened when President Bush scaled back his 1992 California effort and virtually conceded the state to Clinton.
"This a collective concern of Republicans in the state," said Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), the former GOP Assembly leader. "We can't have another example of what we had in 1992."
GOP consultant Sal Russo said Republicans have been seized by "panic" at the prospect--"and it's a justified concern, at this point."
Clinton's poll numbers in California are impressive. A new Times Orange County poll found him slightly ahead of Dole even in that GOP stronghold, a finding consistent with statewide surveys that give Clinton a double-digit lead over the Kansas senator.
And Clinton certainly has worked hard to secure his support. Today's visit is his 23rd to the state as president, one more than Ronald Reagan made to his home state in the same period of his first term.
Neither Republicans nor the White House expect Clinton's margin to remain as large after the primary season, when the GOP will train its fire on the incumbent. And California Republicans insist that Dole can win the state through smart campaigning.
Yet many concede that Clinton has made a strong start, and acknowledge that the logic of the electoral map and the campaign-finance system works against a Republican nominee's launching a major effort in the state.
Officials of the national campaign "will never admit that they're going to cut the state loose," said Tony Quinn, a Republican strategist in Sacramento. "But the whole system works against us in a state like California."
Republicans say Dole would have to spend perhaps as much as $10 million of his $60-million general-election budget to wage a media "air war" in the vast California market. And money will be an issue for Dole: He had spent about $30 million of the federal limit of $37 million in primary funds by March 1 and will have little in the bank until the August GOP national convention, when he would get an infusion of federal money for the general election.
"California is simply so expensive to compete in that [GOP leaders] simply have to start working on other electoral-map options," said a Republican strategist.
And while most analysts believe California is a must-win for Clinton, they think the GOP nominee can assemble a victory with the electoral votes of other states.
Meanwhile, the advantages of incumbency Clinton has exploited in California will be even more valuable in the campaign season.
He can continue to reach California voters at minimal cost through regular visits that combine governmental duties and political opportunities. That approach will dovetail nicely with his current Reagan-like strategy of trying to appear above unseemly political squabbling.
On his current trip, for example, Clinton is scheduled to visit the Harman International audio-products plant in Northridge, appear at a Northern California high school to take part in a statewide event for linking schools to the Internet and attend a Democratic fund-raiser.
"In 1996, the best politics is that which is going to be the least political," said Ann Lewis, communications director of the Clinton-Gore campaign.
Clinton campaign officials publicly say they have not decided how to divide their money among states, and declare they expect a full-scale fight in California.
But privately, White House aides acknowledge that it has been an explicit goal since early in Clinton's presidency to get an early lock on the state in order to free money for tighter contests elsewhere. And they acknowledge that they are on track to reach their goals.
One top Democratic California campaign professional predicted the White House will try to keep campaign spending down in the state. But he said he expected that strategy will be tested later in the campaign, when the gap between the candidates is expected to narrow to single digits.
At that point, the White House would be forced to decide whether it has the fortitude to assume California will go its way without a lot of additional, expensive TV ads, he said.
"Dole will get a bounce" from the Republican nominating convention in San Diego, said this strategist, who asked to remain unidentified. "Maybe he'll get another bounce. And then it'll come down to a game of chicken."
The Clinton campaign is expected to name a state campaign director soon. Sources said Tom Umberg, a former Democratic assemblyman and federal prosecutor from Orange County, currently tops the list of candidates.
If Dole wins the nomination, GOP analysts expect him to seize on the economic unease among many of the state's voters in his travels to California. Dole has important strengths in agricultural sections and the interior of the state, they argue, and will get vigorous help from Gov. Pete Wilson.
But some GOP analysts believe that to win the state, the GOP nominee may need a boost from some unforeseen developments--a new scandal or a foreign or economic calamity.
Clinton "hasn't made a lot of mistakes out here so far," said one Republican aide.
Stuart Spencer, former Reagan campaign manager, acknowledged that California would be a "tough state" for Dole.
Referring to Clinton, Spencer said: "The big advantage is that he has been out here as president. It almost looks like he took a page out of [the Reagan] campaign book. It's almost scary."
Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Bill Stall in Los Angeles contributed to this story.