LOS ANGELES -- Approaching the 1992 presidential election, Democratic Party leaders knew they had to give priority to California as the one state their candidate would have to carry to have any realistic chance of winning.
California's 54 electoral votes represent one-fifth of the 270 needed, a goal that had become increasingly difficult for the Democrats in elections in which they were ceding most of the South.
As it turned out, California was a piece of cake for candidate Bill Clinton. The economic situation was so dire that the electorate had turned angrily against President George Bush. Ahead from the outset, Clinton never spent any serious money here, and he campaigned in the state just enough to avoid accusations he was taking it for granted.
The election arithmetic hasn't changed for 1996, but President Clinton is suddenly finding himself in a far weaker position, to the point that some Democratic campaign strategists are advising their clients in the state to keep their distance from him if they want to survive themselves.
The decline has been swift and steady in the last few months. Immediately after the earthquake, to which Clinton had responded both vigorously and visibly, the president's "positives" exceeded his "negatives" in opinion polls by 2 to 1. Today his approval ratings are running under 50 percent and barely higher than the disapproval.
One recent survey made by a San Francisco poll-taker, Mervin Field, found only 15 percent of voters saying they had "a lot of confidence" in Clinton's handling of domestic affairs, compared with 40 percent who said they had "no confidence."
The Field Poll and others, both published and private, also are finding that almost three-fourths of California voters are saying that the country is "off on the wrong track," rather than "heading in the right direction." Among political professionals, this is considered a key indicator, and "wrong track" numbers above 50 percent are viewed as red-flag warning signals to incumbents.
Clinton's problems here are related in part to the continuing economic concerns. Although there have been some signs of recovery here, the statistics are clearly lagging behind those in the rest of the nation. And the popular perception of economic conditions is even more sour than the figures might support.
Field believes Clinton's success here two years ago may have been so much a reaction against Bush's stewardship that it exaggerated the strength of the new president.
"There were always reservations about Clinton but a lot of hope," Field said. "The reservations are still there, but they've lost the hope."
A leading campaign strategist says privately: "He's got nothing here. They expected him to take over and accomplish something, but nothing has gotten any better, and he seems to be floundering around back in Washington."
Nor is Clinton getting any credit for accomplishments in his first year or his attempt to promulgate a health care reform program. "The health care issue is so muddled," said Field, "that nobody can sort out which plan has which features. Health care is certainly not a cutting issue so far as he is concerned."
In practical terms, the weakness of the president means that he is no help to Democrats in the two major state campaigns here -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein running for re-election and Kathleen Brown running for governor. There are also at least five and perhaps six or seven Democratic members of the House of Representatives who are considered vulnerable in November.
But for the White House the erosion in Clinton's standing in the nation's most populous state means he has a great deal of ground to make up before the 1996 presidential election in which those 54 electoral votes will be just as essential as they were two years ago.
The one consolation for the president and his political managers is that there are no Republican candidates in the field who have demonstrated a strong appeal in California. But that situation could change if Gov. Pete Wilson survives the challenge from Brown -- he is only 5 percentage points behind in the most recent Field Poll -- and runs for president.
But in more general terms, the consensus among political wise guys here is that Clinton's problem in the state is the same one he confronts nationally -- his failure so far to project an image of force and competence.