California's race for governor, a tossup contest for the nation's largest state, is shaping up with even higher stakes than the choice between Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren.
The race has already become a showcase for some of the prospective candidates in the 2000 White House campaign. And congressional leaders say control of the House of Representatives may depend on whether a Democrat or a Republican governor is in place to help redraw California's political boundaries after the 2000 census.
"Obviously, California is the biggest prize," said Doug Richardson, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Assn. "You don't have a chance very often to pick up the largest state in the union. We would clearly like to get it back."
Republicans agree. "California is the cornerstone of this election," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, vice chairman of the Republican Governors Assn.
All of this attention means that California voters are likely to hear some nationally important people saying very nice things about their choices for the governor's office in the coming months.
Last week, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore both toured the state and talked with Lt. Gov. Davis about offering their help in the five months remaining before the November election.
Clinton, on his visit to California over the weekend, gave Davis a strong endorsement before what is probably his most strategic audience at this stage of the campaign: big-ticket Democratic donors.
And Clinton promised to return to campaign for Davis again.
"We've got a chance to have our first Democratic governor of California in quite a long time now--and believe me, we don't need to blow it," Clinton told guests Saturday night at a Democratic National Committee fund-raising dinner in Beverly Hills.
"It really matters a lot more today than it used to who the governor is, because we now have given the states vast new responsibilities in dealing with the welfare of poor families," Clinton said, citing federal welfare, child care and education mandates to the states.
"It matters whether the governor has a plan and the compassion and the caring enough to execute it in a way that will benefit the people of this state," he said.
White House officials also arranged for Davis to meet Clinton on the president's arrival Saturday night at Los Angeles International Airport, in case any television stations wanted to record the handshake.
On the other side, state Atty. Gen. Lungren was hosted in Texas last week at a fund-raiser in his honor organized by Gov. George W. Bush.
Bush, himself a prominent prospect in the 2000 presidential race, has headlined three major Lungren fund-raisers--one in Texas and two in California--and his father, the former president, attended two more. In all, Lungren aides said, the five Bush events have generated well over $2 million for the gubernatorial campaign.
"The Bush family is definitely on board," said Lungren campaign strategist David Puglia.
There is plenty of help from other potential 2000 candidates, too.
Former White House contender Lamar Alexander has opened an independent expenditure committee on Lungren's behalf. Jack Kemp, the 1996 GOP nominee for vice president and a longtime friend of the Lungren family, has already headlined fund-raisers for the governor's race. And Gov. Pete Wilson, who tried for the White House in 1996 and is considering another run, has been Lungren's most lucrative benefactor.
"What we are talking about is Republicans with national stature who are interested in helping Dan Lungren become governor," Puglia said. "We'll take all the help we can get."
Despite such attention, California voters have not seemed to care much in the past about who was in the governor's office when they made their choice for president.
Clinton won office, for example, when Republican Wilson was governor. Before that, Republican Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980 when Democrat Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. was governor.
Still, for those considering a White House bid, campaign trail appearances in 1998 can offer a convenient introduction to California's electorate.
"Anybody who is contemplating a run for president is likely to take whatever opportunities are available to get to know California voters," said Cliff May, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
The high stakes in California have led political watchers to expect the Davis and Lungren campaigns to be equally well-funded.
So far, the Republican National Committee has given at least $500,000 to Lungren. The RNC and other national organizations have pledged more, without being specific.
Unlike Lungren, Davis faced a competitive primary against two members of his party. Most national sources, reluctant to choose sides in a contest among fellow Democrats, held their support until the nominee was chosen in the June 2 primary.
Since then, Davis' campaign officials said, Clinton--with his 72% approval rating in California--and Gore have agreed to "a handful of fund-raisers, maybe three or four" for the Democratic campaign. Details have not been finalized, they said.
Gore, who is considering his own bid for the White House in 2000, is expected to be especially visible in the California campaign this year. And he is expected to join party leaders in stressing that the California race is particularly important because of the coming reapportionment.
If Democrats continue to hold their majority in the California Legislature, Republicans fear the lawmakers could join forces with a Democratic governor and adopt a new map of political districts that weakens GOP chances substantially.
It has happened before.
After the 1980 census, Sacramento Democrats adopted a map of congressional districts that gave their party a 28-17 edge in the California delegation. When Republicans controlled the state capital in 1952, California's reapportionment was credited with swinging the U.S. House to a GOP majority for one term.
Tony Quinn, a Republican strategist in Sacramento who tracks reapportionment plans, suggested that a Democratic reapportionment map could give the party as much as a 10-seat majority in the 52-member California House delegation, which now has 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans.
If control of the House remains close after 2000, that might be enough to give Democrats a majority, he said.
On the other hand, Quinn said a Republican governor can modify the Democratic Legislature's redistricting plan or force a compromise that might be decided in the courts.
Nationwide, the California reapportionment stakes are highest for Democrats because Republicans already hold 32 of the nation's 50 governor seats. Because most of those states give some reapportionment authority to the governor, the GOP might well retain an edge in drawing congressional maps nationwide.
Adding to the national spectacle about which party will win the California sweepstakes is the fact that the Lungren-Davis match is considered a tossup.
"I expect it to go down to the wire," said Clinton Key, executive director of the Republican Governor's Assn. "I think they are both good candidates. I think either campaign can win."
Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus contributed to this story.