With polls up, Clinton's California outlook is suddenly sunny


LOS ANGELES -- When President Clinton flew into town the other night for a charity dinner, it was his 21st visit to California since his election. It did not take a mind reader to figure out why.

Of all 50 states, none other is as important to his chances for re-election next year. As his new political agent in the state, Celia Fisher, puts it, "Nobody wins the election without California. Nobody puts that map together."

That goes for the eventual Republican nominee as well, she contends. Republicans might disagree with that, but because of the growing weakness of the president and his Democratic Party in the once "Solid South," there is little room for argument that California and its top electoral vote prize of 58 is the "must" state for Mr. Clinton.

Only a few weeks earlier, the president and Vice President Al Gore were here for a 1996 campaign fund-raising dinner that brought in more than $1 million. The take was an indication that for all of Bill Clinton's political troubles elsewhere, he still has a lot of friends in the Golden State. And they are not all fat cats. A smaller, low-priced ticket event on the same night drew a turn-away crowd.

By dint of old-fashioned political care and feeding, Mr. Clinton has managed to keep his stock here generally higher than elsewhere. Since his election, he hashad a political operative in Washington tending solely to the state's wants and needs, and he has rushed westward whenever nature has paid another California visit.

The swift federal emergency response to the January 1994 earthquake has remained a particular reminder to Californians that they have a friend in the White House. So has the crime bill that promises, among other largess, to put 640 new police on Los Angeles' tension-ridden streets.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, back on the job in Sacramento after the collapse of his brief presidential campaign, says one of his failures was in not convincing Californians that Mr. Clinton has been a failure. Hence, he says, they never bought into his campaign pitch at home that he was breaking his promise not to run for president because California would be much better off with Pete Wilson in the

White House rather than Bill Clinton.

Things are looking up

While Mr. Clinton's support in California won't make the locals forget the Ronald Reagan era, it has been on the upswing this year. In the California Poll by Mervin Field, the president has seen his ratings climb against every leading Republican candidate, and in September he was beating all the declared Republican candidates.

The one cloud over him politically is the same one that hovers over all the Republicans -- retired Gen. Colin Powell. Even in that case, however, Mr. Clinton has improved his position in the Field Poll. Trailing Mr. Powell, 37 percent to 49 percent in May, he is now behind only 41 percent to 46 percent.

Although Bill Clinton will be the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to enjoy the strong prospect of being unopposed in the California primary, his state campaign operation is already forming. If no serious challenger surfaces, he will be able to spend the California primary period shoring up his support while the surviving GOP candidates continue to slug it out.

Again, however, the specter of Colin Powell, or possibly another candidate running on the new party ticket that Ross Perot is trying to launch in California, looms prospectively over this optimistic scenario.

Democratic operatives here think Pete Wilson, for all his troubles as a presidential candidate, may yet hold out hopes to get the Republican vice-presidential nomination. But after acknowledging that he thought Sen. Bob Dole might have asked him earlier to be his running mate and that he might have said yes and stayed out of the presidential race, that

seems far-fetched. And with Pete Wilson's popularity in a nose dive now, it's hard to see how his presence on the ticket would threaten Bill Clinton here.

In other states, when Clinton operatives talk optimistically, the temptation is to smile and suppress a snicker. His current political posture, of seeming to seek accommodation with the Republican lions on Capitol Hill who give every sign of wanting and intending to have him for dinner, is not the stuff of which enthusiastic partisan support is usually built.

Still, in the September Field Poll, he had positive ratings (fair to very good) of 69 percent to only 31 negative (poor to very poor). So right now at least, California may be his to lose.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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