With California in his pocket, Clinton storms into GOP mountain country IN THE WEST


DENVER -- Four years ago, Eileen Padberg managed George Bush's presidential campaign in the state of California. Now, she's not sure she'll even vote for him.

The alienation of moderate Republicans such as Ms. Padberg is the final nail in the coffin for Mr. Bush's political chances in the nation's most populous state. It is also an important part of the remarkable political change that has swept the West this election year, giving Bill Clinton an excellent chance to break the GOP's hold on the region.

From the Front Range of the Rockies, crowned with the season's first snow, to the rolling surf of the Pacific coastline, what once was unassailably Republican territory is now a patchwork of Clinton and Bush states, with a handful still up for grabs.

Nine days before the election, Mr. Clinton seems assured of winning more than two-thirds of the West's electoral votes. Mr. Bush took the overwhelming majority of these states in 1988, but he can count on winning less than a handful right now.

With the race all but over on the West Coast, the Democratic nominee was storming last week through the unlikeliest battleground of the '92 campaign: the Mountain West, which contains the most Republican states in the country.

In Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, Mr. Clinton appealed for the support of Republicans, independents and Ross Perot backers, styling himself as the head of a "new Democratic Party." But while he tries to come across as a breed apart from the old tax-and-spend liberal Democrats, it is the incumbent president's shortcomings that are mainly driving votes Mr. Clinton's way.

Mr. Clinton made a brief campaign stop last week in California, the biggest electoral prize in the country, with one-fifth of the total of 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. But that in-your-face visit to the Republican bastion of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was all he needed.

Mr. Bush essentially abandoned California weeks ago. He hasn't been seen there since Sept. 15, although a spokesman for the Bush-Quayle campaign expressed hope late last week that the president would return before Election Day, Nov. 3.

"There is no question that, for the first time in I don't know how long, a Republican president won't carry California," said Ms. Padberg, a Republican campaign consultant. That's since 1964, to be precise, when Barry Goldwater lost the Golden State to Lyndon Johnson.

Lee Atwater, the late Republican national chairman, often described the megastate of California as the key to securing an era of Republican domination in presidential politics. Now, it stands as a symbol of the political lapses of the Bush years, as well as a likely precursor of the new political age, in which neither party holds sway beyond the next election.

Mr. Clinton leads by about 20 points, according to recent polls in California polls. The real question is whether Mr. Bush will wind up third in the state, behind independent Ross Perot.

"Clinton is no John F. Kennedy. People liked Jack Kennedy. People don't like Bill Clinton," says a prominent Republican who is close to the Bush campaign in the state. "It only shows you the intensity of the hatred for George Bush."

The president is blamed for a plunging state economy, fed in part by defense cutbacks. The downdraft has hit white-collar suburban swing voters and blue-collar Reagan Democrats with equal vengeance.

Mr. Bush's attempts to play down the severity of the recession only worsened his difficulties with Californians, who had never warmed to him in the first place.

Republicans and Democrats alike describe Mr. Bush and his advisers as culturally out of tune with Californians, many of whom migrated to the state for what they hoped would be a better quality of life.

"Bush is about as Californian as a Martian," says Bill Carrick, a South Carolina native who has become a leading Democratic strategist in Los Angeles.

Mr. Clinton, by contrast, retained a savvy veteran of California's political wars, Los Angeles lawyer Mickey Kantor, as his national campaign manager. Choosing Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate was also highly popular among the environmentally conscious voters of California and other Western states, including Colorado.

Other marks against Mr. Bush in California include his uncertain response to the Los Angeles riots in April and his decision to give the chairmanship of his California campaign to Gov. Pete Wilson -- the only major figure in the state less popular than the president, thanks to a severe state budget crisis.

Mr. Bush also failed to build bridges to corporate leaders, especially in the Silicon Valley area of northern California, producing major defections to the Clinton camp from well-known figures in the computer industry.

Then came the Republican National Convention in August, which gave emphasis to the religious right wing of the party, "family values" and the anti-abortion platform. Many independents and RTC moderate Republicans heard a message of intolerance and outright hostility to working women.

"This is not the party I signed up for," said Ms. Padberg, one of the earliest Bush supporters in Orange County. "People don't want to be a part of a fanatic religious organization."

At the same time, Mr. Bush has suffered conservative defections because of his 1990 decision to raise taxes after repeatedly pledging during the 1988 campaign that he would not do so.

"When he took back his pledge on taxes, in the western part of the country that hurt him quite a bit," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf, a Nevada Republican who was national party chairman under President Ronald Reagan.

Many of those defectors have joined the Perot camp in the old cowboy West, where rising anti-Bush sentiment threatens to undermine other Republican candidates on Election Day.

Terry Considine, the Republican Senate nominee in Colorado, gave voice to those concerns the other day when he described Mr. Bush to a local reporter as "our Jimmy Carter" and said, "The administration has a thousand faults."

Out here, where the pioneer spirit is sacred, folks pride themselves on their rugged individualism and independent-mindedness. The Mountain West has long been a hotbed of anti-Washington sentiment, and it is here that Perot support runs above the national average.

J. Michael McGee, 36, a mortgage broker in Denver, says his Perot vote isn't a protest. He believes the Texas billionaire would make the best president.

"Mr. Perot is a very strong-willed individual who has the ability to get the two political parties to sit down and negotiate a common ground. It's an ability he's proven," said Mr. McGee, who describes himself as a Libertarian.

While initial support for Mr. Perot may have come out of Mr. Bush's hide in the West, some Clinton strategists fear that further gains by Mr. Perot could hurt the Democrat and give Colorado to Mr. Bush. It could also kill whatever remote chance Mr. Clinton may have of winning such unassailably Republican states as Nevada and Arizona, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1948 -- longer than any other state in the country.

At the moment, Mr. Perot is not close in any of these states, however. His best chance of winning appears to be in Alaska, where a recent poll put him within 11 points of the lead.

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