SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Jack Flanagan, California manager of the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, sat in the nearly deserted state headquarters here the other day and mused about the impact of the Ross Perot phenomenon in the nation's most populous state, and in the country.
"He's a big gorilla in this race," Mr. Flanagan said. "If the interest and enthusiasm about his campaign continues to grow, he'll be the next president. The question is whether he can sustain it."
It was a rather startling comment coming from the man -- an old political hand of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson -- who is in charge on the state level of seeing that it doesn't happen. California, with its 54 electoral votes, will provide one-fifth of the electors bTC needed to claim the White House and is as critical as any one state to the president's chances for a second term.
While the latest Gallup Poll suggests that the Perot phenomenon may be leveling off, the threat to President Bush in California is not simply Mr. Perot's popularity. California's dismal economy provides an issue on which the Texas billionaire and the prospective Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, hope to capitalize.
"The state of California, including its governmental entity, is in as dire a situation as it has been since the Great Depression," the Bush-Quayle manager said.
Mr. Wilson, the state campaign chairman, like Mr. Bush is under the gun for having raised taxes and has also been in a tough budget battle with Democratic legislators over social programs and other cuts.
With the dominant defense industry shrinking, "we're losing our taxpayer base," Mr. Flanagan said. California "was the last state into the recession, and we'll probably be the last state out."
"People are frustrated, and the Perot phenomenon in California is the product of a lot of frustration," he said. "It's certainly behind the Perot volunteer effort. He's done a terrific job mobilizing people who feel disillusioned. He's been the --ing suitor."
By contrast, Mr. Bush is not especially well known here -- even in Republican circles. After eight years of a Californian, Ronald Reagan, in the White House, Mr. Flanagan says, California Republicans do not feel that they have much personal contact with the president any longer.
The Bush-Quayle manager spoke of Mr. Perot's potential the day before a large rally on the Capitol grounds where Mr. Perot announced that his followers had gathered more than 1 million signatures -- about 10 times the number needed -- to put his name on the November ballot. That development, too, gave Mr. Flanagan cause for worry because it raised the specter of a major grass-roots competition in a state that increasingly has depended on television to reach and motivate voters.
"Over the last 20 years, campaigns have been focused on paid media and direct mail," he said. "The grass-roots approach has virtually withered and gone away." With limited funds, campaigns have chosen to put most of their money into paid television, especially in megastates like California, leaving few resources for old-fashioned politicking at the neighborhood and precinct levels.
"But what we're seeing this time is California and a lot of other states are going to be won or lost by narrow margins," Mr. Flanagan said. "In a three-way race, if we can win 40 percent, we can win, so we are really going to solidify our base -- go neighborhood by neighborhood, precinct by precinct, to get out our base."
But that approach costs money, and neither the Bush nor Clinton campaigns can afford to have Mr. Perot with his deep pockets outspending them on television. Using his own money and, hence, unfettered by federal spending limits imposed on the two major-party candidates for the $56 million taxpayer subsidy each will receive, Mr. Perot can spend all he wants on television. At the same time, he can lavishly finance a grass-roots campaign, making full use of the army of volunteers eager to knock on doors for him throughout the state -- and country.
Mr. Perot in his speech here reiterated his theme about giving the country back to the people by financing the campaign "for them." It is a sure-fire applause line in a time of sweeping public disenchantment with politicians. Yet the Perot campaign does offer an unprecedented prospect for returning presidential politics to Main Street. By providing both the enthusiasm and the money with which to fuel basic grass-roots voter registration and voter turnout, it's possible that an army of volunteers of this size can make even a state like California manageable.
One question is whether such a state requires experienced leadership: whether Mr. Perot's paid operatives in Dallas will have to move in and how that will sit with the volunteers. The
campaign is about to take on one of the state's most effective Republican campaign consultants, Sal Russo, an old partner of Edward J. Rollins, the 1984 Ronald Reagan re-election manager who is now co-manager of the Perot campaign nationally. But Mr. Russo will work in Dallas.
Part of Mr. Perot's appeal to the volunteers has been the way he has scorned paid professionals -- while hiring some. But the attitude, at least at the Perot state headquarters in Ventura, is that if the paid professionals really believe in the candidate as the volunteers do, and can help, their experience will certainly be welcome. "I don't care as long as they know what they're doing and don't try to do it for us," says Steve Dinneen, a management consultant running three southern coastal counties as a volunteer.
The sheer number of potential foot soldiers is imposing. "This army of Perot volunteers is going to be an awesome force" that the Republicans and Democrats won't be able to match, Mr. Russo says. "And they won't cost the Perot campaign a penny."
But while the Perot volunteers have been paying their own way in California so far, it's certain that significant amounts of Perot money will be needed to provide the volunteers with campaign materials once they start knocking on doors in every precinct.
Mr. Russo also acknowledges that while the volunteers have run the petition drives essentially on their own and at their own expense, there will have to be central planning on a national strategy. But right now the only plan seems to be to keep pumping up the troops everywhere -- and particularly in critical California, where the president's vulnerabilities are especially evident.