Nothing counts for more than California primary

GERMOND & WITCOVER

May 02, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There are still five Tuesdays of primaries on the presidential campaign schedule, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the only one that matters in either party will be the California primary June 2. Both President Bush and his presumptive Democratic opponent, Gov. Bill Clinton, have significant stakes there.

While it is too early to say what impact, if any, the current civil unrest in the state will have on the primary, there is no mystery about why California is so important. With the reapportionment of the House based on the 1990 census, California will cast 54 electoral votes, one-fifth the total needed to win the presidency. And professionals in both parties agree that the state is an absolute "must" for the Democrats in view of the Southern states they must cede at the outset.

That means that Clinton needs to use the primary to begin his general election campaigning in the state.

There are risks and opportunities for the Arkansas governor. The principal problem obviously is that Clinton will be running against a home-state candidate, Jerry Brown, who served two terms as governor and still has a hard core of perhaps one-third of the Democratic electorate. But if Clinton succeeds in defeating Brown on his own turf, he can expect to realize benefits in terms of political celebrity far beyond what he would otherwise receive.

The Republican situation is similar in one respect. President Bush, who has a two-day campaign swing through the state scheduled for late next week, has never been a crowd-pleaser in California, which he carried with only 51 percent of the vote against Michael S. Dukakis four years ago. So there is some pressure on the president, as well, to use his primary exposure as a time to build for the general election.

The problem for the Republicans is the extreme ideological polarization within their party that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan intends to exploit. It is obvious in the two Senate primaries in California, in several House races and in the angry divisions of opinion about the effectiveness and future of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Neither Bush nor Clinton needs the delegates at stake in California. But neither can either candidate afford an embarrassing performance there.

Carolina counts

Although there are also primaries Tuesday in Indiana and the District of Columbia, the next major stop on the primary trail is in North Carolina, now the nation's 10th-most-populous state but one getting little attention from the candidates. Brown plans only token appearances, a wise course in the light of a recent $H Mason-Dixon poll showing Clinton with 60 percent and Brown with 13 percent. But the news for Clinton is mixed. The poll showed him with favorable ratings from only 29 percent, compared with negatives of 41 percent. By contrast, in February it was 33 favorable, 17 unfavorable.

Digging the dirt

Around this time four years ago, the George Bush "opposition research" staff was busy digging out the key issues that later buried Dukakis: the Willie Horton prison furlough story, Dukakis' veto of a mandatory school Pledge of Allegiance, pollution in Boston Harbor. But now, Bush-Quayle strategists insist, their researchers are under strict orders from President Bush to do no "negative" research, except to look into Clinton's record as governor -- which after all is what they did in burying Dukakis.

One Bush-Quayle insider says that this year's chief of opposition research, David Tell, was kept so busy gathering material on what Republican challenger Pat Buchanan had said and written in his long journalistic career that there was little time until recently to take a look at the Clinton record. But it's acknowledged that opposition researchers have been in Little Rock -- an admission confirmed by Betsy Wright, the longtime Clinton aide now posted there to keep an eye on sleuths, journalistic and otherwise, making inquiries about the Arkansas governor's 11 years in office.

As an indication of the scope of the Bush-Quayle opposition research effort against Clinton so far, the word from campaign headquarters is that whereas 1988 team captain Jim Pinkerton had "35 excellent nerds" combing the cobwebs for material on Dukakis, Tell now has "a secretary and one excellent nerd" on the Clinton project. But it's still early -- and there is also Ross Perot to look at.

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