On the final weekend of the campaign, perhaps no place in the state was more crucial to Democratic prospects for victory in legislative races than a nondescript office building on a side street a few blocks from the state Capitol.
On the first floor, next to a discount shoe store and behind floor-to-ceiling windows covered with brown wrapping paper, state Democratic Party officials were putting the finishing touches on the final batches of an estimated 10 million pieces of mail targeted at voters in Assembly campaigns.
A creaky elevator ride away, on the second floor, Assembly Democratic staffers--most on leave to work on campaigns--were hunkered down, phones to their ears or eyes staring at computer screens.
These Democrats were plotting their comeback after the Republican landslide of 1994, when Democrats lost power in the lower house for the first time in a quarter century. The walls of this Democratic beehive were covered with signs such as "We shall succeed."
Among those putting the dollars to work--the master of the Assembly Democratic campaign war room on the last-chance weekend--was veteran Los Angeles strategist Darry Sragow, whose tiny office was a jumble of mailers, videotapes of anti-Republican commercials and computer printouts.
"On the final weekend . . . working real hard is critical. The weekend [especially] matters if you are in a really close race," said Sragow, who oversaw John Garamendi's failed 1994 gubernatorial bid.
And what mattered most on the eve of this election for Republicans and Democrats were plenty of details, little things to fret about as both sides launched their final effort to attract voters.
It's the details, stupid: being poised to respond to last-minute dirty tricks; ensuring that targeted mail was coded, sorted and delivered on time to the appropriate postal loading docks; seeing get-out-the-vote kits properly prepared with precinct lists for distribution in the wee hours of election day; and guaranteeing enough rain parkas for campaign volunteers in case of stormy weather.
In the homestretch, both sides are relying heavily on the same messenger to get out their final appeals: mail carriers who are delivering millions of political hit pieces and Mailgrams, in some cases disguised to look like telegrams.
"It's enough [material] for the mail carriers to be working overtime and going to see their doctors on Wednesday about backaches," cracked Bob Mulholland, a campaign advisor to the California Democratic Party.
"We are getting a lot of heavy mail . . . and we expect it to continue through the weekend," said David Mazer, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Los Angeles, adding that extra Christmas help is already on duty to handle the rush of political mail hitting loading docks.
But, he said, mail carriers "don't get much help" lugging campaign material on their individual routes.
Jeff Flint, who heads Assembly campaign efforts for Republicans, said that, in a typical Assembly race on the eve of balloting, perhaps as many as 20% of registered voters are undecided, "so you've got to influence" them. Along with mail, he said, they can be influenced by telephone calls, TV ads bombarding viewers and by people knocking on doors.
John Nelson, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), added that "the importance of the final weekend is to mobilize your base voters" as well as keep up the morale of supporters, and ensure that absentee ballots are sent to county offices.
The flurry of activity reflects the importance of the final days, acknowledged Timothy A. Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.
"The political groupies and reporters and political hacks like to think that everyone focuses on the election as much as they do," said Hodson, a former state Senate aide.
"In reality," he said, "there are many, many people who don't start to focus on an election until the last few weeks and in some cases, particularly in legislative races that are very, very close, this undecided vote could be critical."
"The other important function that the late campaign frenzy serves is to reinforce your supporters . . . to make sure [they] . . . aren't complacent."
Hodson said that campaign workers will also be surveying the skies, because the weather can be pivotal to turnout.
Some activists say the outcome might well come down to the weather. If it's raining in swing districts, the activists give the edge to the GOP candidates because Republicans tend to be more reliable about going to the polls, even in stormy weather.
"Republicans have umbrellas," joked one Democratic staff member.
Attempts at humor were part of the final push, too.
Democrat Mulholland faxed to Republican governors an official-looking memorandum that begins: "Gov. Pete Wilson wanted to make sure you saw the latest poll of California likely voters," which showed Republican Bob Dole trailing President Clinton.
It concluded with a "p.s." that said "people are estimating that Republicans may lose 3-5 congressional seats in California."
"I like to wreck their breakfasts," quipped Mulholland, who said he has sent several other missives to GOP governors.
Republicans didn't find the salvo funny.
LeAnne Redick, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, sent a memo to the Republican governors cautioning them about Mulholland, saying that "in California political circles he is known as a liberal, mud-slinging political consultant."
Campaign activity was not limited to partisan contests.
Opponents of Proposition 215, the initiative that seeks to make marijuana legal for medical use, were distributing a video news release to TV stations of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop urging a vote against the measure.
"We're trying to get as much play for that as possible," said Stu Mollrich, a consultant for the anti-Proposition 215 campaign, which is being heavily outspent.
Dave Fratello, a spokesman for the campaign in support of the marijuana measure, said that "for better or worse we're sort of coasting." However, the campaign continues to broadcast TV commercials.
Supporters of the two rival health care regulatory measures, Proposition 214 and 216, both did door-to-door canvassing of neighborhoods across the state. The Proposition 214 campaign planned to mail more than 5 million leaflets to voters' homes over the weekend.
Traveling in a bus and car caravan, consumer activist Ralph Nader, nurses and other supporters of Proposition 216 held demonstrations from San Diego to Sacramento over the weekend. They held demonstrations at Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Los Angeles and Fresno, and at other health care facilities to gain support for their measure to regulate HMOs.
Led by health insurers and hospitals, opponents of the two measures said they had no special campaign plans for the weekend.
Picking up where labor's $35-million national advertising campaign left off, state union officials have launched the largest get-out-the-vote drive in California since 1958, targeting 33 tight state and congressional races in an attempt to tip them toward the Democrats.
More than 200,000 union members have been personally contacted by telephone or at their front doors since early October by some 5,000 labor volunteers, who remind voters to beware of "local Newt-types," said Maureen Anderson, spokeswoman for the State Federation of Labor in San Francisco, which has 1.5 million members.
Yet it is unclear what impact last-minute activity could have on turnout. Last week, Secretary of State Bill Jones predicted that 71% of the state's voters would vote in Tuesday's election, a record low for a presidential election.
Times staff writers Faye Fiore and David Olmos contributed to this story.