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Clinton gets warm greeting in L.A., along with a glimpse of difficulties


LOS ANGELES -- President Clinton ran for office as a heale who could help bridge the differences between Americans while getting the economy humming again. A trip here yesterday showcased the president's strengths in relating to all kinds of people -- but also showed the president that he has his work cut out for him.

The complex ethnic rivalries of Los Angeles County were apparent to the president all during the day, his second on a campaign-style Western swing that began in New Mexico.

At a meeting in predominantly white and non-Hispanic San Fernando Valley, Mr. Clinton's motorcade was greeted with a host of signs denouncing illegal immigrants and Michael Woo, the liberal, Democratic Chinese-American mayoral candidate whom the president endorsed yesterday.

"Send ground troops to the U.S. border," read one sign. "America is a sovereign nation," read another. But at Los Angeles Valley College, it was an African-American student who asked Mr. Clinton pointedly what his government was going to do to control the "unconscionable flood of illegal aliens."

A Latino student in the back of the crowd yelled something back, and the president looked slightly unsettled by the question.

Mr. Clinton carried California last year, the first Democratic candidate to do so since 1964, largely on his themes of building racial harmony and of getting California and the nation moving again economically.

Perhaps more than some of the young people who turned out to hear him yesterday, Mr. Clinton understands that the two issues -- racial harmony and economic prosperity -- cannot be solved independently of one another.

Mr. Clinton himself subtly stressed this theme. To the young black community college student in the Valley who complained of the cost of health care for illegal immigrants, the president cautioned: "This is a state made by immigrants."

Mr. Clinton also spent part of the day in riot-ravaged South Central Los Angeles -- a visit designed to draw attention to the fact that while California's depressed real estate market and lost aerospace jobs have hurt the state's huge middle class, in some neighborhoods, real estate prices have been stagnant for years and crime and a sense of purposelessness have put a damper on the American dream.

"This community needs federal money for job training, for education,for work that is permanent," said George Dotson, a RTC 51-year-old owner of a carpet and drapery store in South Central L.A.

A year ago, Mr. Dotson, who is black, watched in trepidation from inside his shop as rioters swept down both sides of Florence Avenue, looting and burning.

Yesterday, he was among the hundreds of residents who turned out on a typically lovely, sunny California afternoon to catch a glimpse of the president.

The president was presented a pair of basketball shoes by a young man at The Playground, which is a combined sporting goods store and community center founded by four former gang members and four former local business people. "There are all kinds of opportunities like this -- we can do it!" the president shouted enthusiastically.

Mr. Clinton donned the shoes, shed his coat and tie, rolled up his sleeves and shot some hoops, to the delight of the crowd, who moaned when he missed a shot and whooped in delight when he finally sank one.

The president came to this neighborhood a year after America and the rest of this state watched images of the neighborhood in flames, its shops being looted, and black gang members beating and shooting Asians, Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites.

Today, Rodney King is no longer a battle cry, and Los Angeles police officers Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell stand convicted.

But stubborn wounds remain, and neither they nor the state's sluggish economy can be healed by an occasional presidential visit.

Rebuild L.A., the organization headed by Peter Ueberroth and charged with re-invigorating the economy of South Central, has had trouble actually getting projects started in the burned-out neighborhood. Moreover, many Hispanics feel that they are being left behind because of the political clout of African-Americans.

A survey done in late April by the political pollster and consultant Sergio Bendixen found that by a margin of 62 to 26 percent, Hispanic residents of South Central L.A. and the sprawling nearby neighborhood of Pico Union believe that their concerns are being "ignored" in the rebuilding effort.

But down Florence Street, past the anti-police graffiti, past the wino relieving himself while the president's motorcade rolled by, a crowd gathered that had, of all things, a fierce sense of hope.

"He talked about change, and he can't do it in 100 days, but he can change, we all can change," said Donna Lamar-Scott, a 29-year-old commercial producer who drove up from Playa del Rey to catch a glimpse of the president.

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