Stakes high for Clinton in California elections


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- He's not on the Nov. 8 ballot anywhere in California, but no one outside the state has more at stake in the results than President Clinton. What happens here in the contests for one seat in the Senate and 52 in the House of Representatives and for the governorship could have a critical impact on the president's next two years in office -- and on his chances for re-election in 1996.

In his challenge to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Republican Rep. Michael Huffington has used heavy negative television advertising to put her re-election in severe jeopardy. A Huffington victory would give the Republicans a key pickup toward the seven seats they need to regain control of the Senate they last held in 1986. That outcome for 1995-1996 likely would make Mr. Clinton's stormy first two years seem a sunny Sunday stroll by comparison.

In the campaign for the nation's largest state delegation to the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee rates 11 of the 30 California seats held by Democrats to be vulnerable; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee considers only three of the 22 House seats held by Republicans to be prime targets. GOP victories here could contribute in a major way to the party's long-shot goal of 40 pickups to gain House control for the first time in 38 years -- and even greater congressional woe for the president.

And if the governor's race between incumbent Republican Pete Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown turns out as the polls now indicate -- Mr. Wilson ahead by 50 percent to 42 among registered voters surveyed by the Los Angeles Times -- )) Mr. Clinton could have a strong new 1996 challenger on his hands. Mr. Wilson's lead is even wider in the poll among voters considered likely to vote: 54 percent to 41.

"Obviously we have a great desire to take Pete Wilson out, not only for now but or 1996," says Don Sweitzer, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "It's a lot better to have a Democratic governor in a presidential election year." With the critical Senate seat and large House contingent, he says, "it makes California of just monumental importance."

Mr. Sweitzer cites the $1 million the national committee has put into a coordinated campaign of all California candidates this fall, more than half the amount spent by the DNC in all states in 1990. A field operation of 300 workers in 100 offices is in place here.

Concerning Mr. Wilson especially, Mr. Sweitzer says, his re-election would make him an immediate presidential prospect. "The governor of the state with the most electoral votes [54] is obviously a big barracuda." And he adds, in a jumbled metaphor that nevertheless makes the point: "That's why we want to cut his legs off."

The California results will be particularly significant to President Clinton because the state is so crucial to his re-election hopes. With widespread erosion of his support elsewhere, and especially in the South and other Western states, his campaign strategists look to California as the linchpin for 1996, just as it was in 1992, when he won the state handily.

Knowing the political importance of California, the president in 1993 assigned a special aide to address the needs of this defense-oriented state, one of the last to start climbing out of the recession of the George Bush years. Mr. Clinton's administration responded quickly to the epidemic of earthquakes, wildfires, landslides and floods that have plagued it, but still the same disaffection that has befallen him elsewhere has taken its toll here.

Seeking to capitalize on that, Republican candidates for the Senate and House and even Governor Wilson have sought to make their campaigns at least in part referendums on Mr. Clinton, painting their Democratic opponents as Clinton supporters or even "clones," as some television ads put it.

Nowhere has this tactic been more conspicuous than in the Huffington campaign against Mrs. Feinstein. And for good measure, Mr. Huffington has referred to his campaign in part as "a referendum on the Clinton-Feinstein-Boxer regime," throwing in California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, who is not up for re-election.

Mr. Huffington, a Texas millionaire who moved to California and won a House seat in 1992 by spending about $5 million of his own money, runs as a "citizen politician" who pledges he will serve only two Senate terms if he is elected. He slaps the "career politician" label on Mrs. Feinstein, referring not only to her service as mayor and a city supervisor in San Francisco but also to her losing race against Mr. Wilson in 1990 before winning a short two-year term in the Senate in 1992.

After a speech to Alameda County Democrats in Oakland, Mrs. Feinstein said she welcomed a Clinton visit -- one is tentatively scheduled for next Saturday -- saying, "I happen to think he's a help in California." Then, however, she added: "This election is not about Clinton."

Tapping the anger

But California Republicans everywhere are saying it is. And in Mr. Huffington's case, it is a way, along with constantly attacking Mrs. Feinstein as the senator of "the special interests," of tapping into voter anger toward Washington, even though he is a congressman.

Clearly confident that this anger is so strong, Mr. Huffington openly acknowledges that he proposed nothing significant in the House beyond a proposal to give short-form income-tax filers the right to deduct charitable contributions, which he argues should replace all federal welfare. The proposal was dead on arrival, and Mrs. Feinstein harps on Mr. Huffington's lack of any record of legislative accomplishment. He replies that he went to the House to reduce government and will do the same if elected to the Senate.

The race is a classic confrontation between one candidate, Mrs. Feinstein, who sees and tries to use government as an agent of change and improvement, and another, Mr. Huffington, who declares a plague on it and willingly advertises himself as an obstructionist. Although he calls for a stronger national defense, he even voted against more defense spending and has been criticized by Mrs. Feinstein for ignoring constituent needs, which she prides herself on serving.

In ordinary years, the contest between an experienced and generally popular senator and an inexperienced newcomer who boldly is trying to buy the seat -- he is expected to spend $20 million or more, a national record for a Senate race -- would be no contest. But voter unhappiness with Washington is so strong that the outcome remains uncertain. Mrs. Feinstein holds a 49-percent-to-42-percent lead in the latest Los Angeles Times poll, but it could be overcome by Mr. Huffington's expected heavy spending on television in the last weeks.

In the House, the most endangered Democratic incumbents from California include Dan Hamburg, Lynn C. Woolsey, Anna G. Eshoo, Sam Farr, Richard H. Lehman, Anthony C. Beilenson, Jane Harman, Lynn Schenk and Bob Filner. The state's Democrats have hopes of ousting Republicans John T. Doolittle, Carlos Moorhead and Ken Calvert and winning two open seats.

A year ago, the governor's race looked like the swan song for Mr. Wilson, plagued by severe budget problems and a reputation for ineffectiveness in Sacramento. But he was Pete-on-the-spot after the numerous national disasters that hit the state, becoming an ever-present figure on California television. He seized on great public distress over constant immigration from Mexico and how it is taxing the state's resources, proposing that many benefits be denied illegal immigrants.

Mr. Wilson accordingly may benefit from Proposition 187, a ballot measure that would cut off all non-emergency welfare benefits for illegal immigrants and make their children ineligible for public schools. But the opposition to this extreme proposal is mounting and in the end could help Democratic nominee Brown by drawing more liberals to the polls.

Although a little-known primary opponent got about one-third of the vote against Mr. Wilson, he came out of the primary in much better financial shape than Ms. Brown, who had a tough fight. All year Ms. Brown has struggled over her identity as the sister of controversial former Gov. Jerry Brown and her position on the death penalty. She personally opposes it but says she would enforce it if elected -- a position that Mr. Wilson, who is for capital punishment, has exploited in the increasing climate of fear of violent crime.

Emotion on display

In a statewide televised debate Friday night, Mr. Wilson again questioned Ms. Brown's toughness toward crime, leading her to disclose that one of her daughters had been raped and a son mugged and robbed. Ms. Brown said she spoke because she resented Mr. Wilson's "questioning my commitment to be tough on crime." Her emotional disclosures, however, took the debate's focus off a detailed plan she has spelled out to contrast her solutions to the state's problems with Mr. Wilson's 30-second television commercials.

Taken together, the California races paint a picture of a Democratic Party in peril here, with President Clinton as much as the California Democratic candidates facing the prospect of a very nervous election night on Nov. 8.

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