Clinton gains on Brown in California, but strong victory may prove elusive

May 17, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- A large rooftop billboard looking down at the Bill Clinton state campaign headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard proclaims: "A Race Even a Democrat Can Win."

The sign does not, however, refer to this year's presidential race, but rather is an advertisement for the Hollywood Park racetrack -- an ad that mocks the Democratic reputation for losing, as in the string of five defeats in the last six presidential elections.

Mr. Clinton hopes to demonstrate he has the support to buck that sorry record by winning the final major primary on the 1992 political track here in California on June 2. Ordinarily a candidate nTC so far ahead in delegates at this time -- 1,824.5 of the 2,145 required for nomination, according to the Associated Press -- against a lone and weak competitor would have no concern at all.

But because that competitor is a former governor of this state, the unpredictable and tenacious Jerry Brown, the Clinton campaign is gearing up for a full-scale effort in California, which will choose the single largest primary prize of the year -- 348 pledged delegates. Clinton aides here say that even if he loses the state, he will pick up enough delegates, in California and five other states holding primaries on June 2, to go over the top that day.

The Clinton campaign understands, though, that failing to win the nation's largest state will raise serious questions about the Arkansas governor's ability to carry it in November -- considered an absolute must if he hopes to capture the presidency from George Bush.

Right now a California victory for Mr. Clinton in the fall is rated a fair possibility. President Bush has never been highly popular here, and in 1988 he defeated Democrat Michael S. Dukakis by only 3 percent.

Mr. Bush's favorable rating in a late April poll by the Los Angeles Times was only 52 percent, to 47 percent unfavorable. In a two-man race with Mr. Clinton he led, 49 percent-38 percent, but when independent prospect Ross Perot was factored in, it was Bush 33 percent, Perot 32 percent, Clinton 26 percent.

At first blush, the task of beating the pesky Mr. Brown here would not seem to be very difficult. After his upset of Mr. Clinton in the Connecticut primary nearly seven weeks ago, Mr. Brown has fizzled. He is trying to end his slide in Tuesday's Oregon primary, but his real test will be in his home state, where he always has been, and still is, considered a political and personal enigma.

In the April poll by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Brown led Mr. Clinton, 51 percent to 37 percent, but in the California Poll by Mervin Field, just out, Mr. Clinton is now ahead, 49 percent to 42 percent, as he begins to campaign more regularly in the state.

The conventional wisdom here is that Mr. Brown's political magic wore off in California long ago, and that he didn't seek a third term as governor in 1978 because he would have lost. It's suggested here also that he chose to run for president this year because a second Senate bid, planned last year, was also doomed. He lost to present Gov. Pete Wilson for a Senate seat in 1986.

But California, like Mr. Brown himself, is unpredictable and has been unkind to front-runners in the past. Gary Hart beat Walter F. Mondale here in 1984 when Mr. Mondale similarly was closing in on the Democratic nomination. And the Brown name remains a familiar and popular one among California Democrats. Jerry's father, former Gov. Pat Brown, remains a revered figure in the party, and Jerry's sister, Kathleen Brown, is a rising star as secretary of state.

Also, Mr. Brown's focus and strong record in California on environmental issues, always a strong pull on voters here, should have appeal in a state where thousands registered as members of a new Green Party this year. Jim Clarke, Mr. Brown's California political director, says there is now a lot of registering back into the Democratic Party and speculates that "they're not changing back as Democratic to vote for Bill Clinton."

The real lure, however, may be the two Senate primaries in the state on June 2.

Although Mr. Brown is still derided around the country as "Governor Moonbeam," for some of his more exotic ideas in Sacramento, many voters in California have no or little memory of that time, says Dee Dee Myers, the Clinton press secretary.

One-third of today's Democratic voters either were too young to pay attention during his governorship from l974 to 1982, she says, or have moved into California since then. That is one reason, she says, Mr. Clinton can't take the state for granted.

Another, says Mickey Kantor, Mr. Clinton's national campaign chairman and long a voice in California Democratic politics, is that the Arkansas governor has spent so much time this year in primaries in the East, South and Midwest that he has not yet made a personal impression on Californians. To deal with that shortcoming, the campaign is planning abundant television advertising as well as personal stumping by the candidate between now and the primary.

Mr. Brown, by contrast, has little money for a major television campaign and instead, says Mr. Clarke, will focus on cheaper, local cable television as well as a continuation of his frenetic personal campaigning.

While conceding now that the nomination is lost, Mr. Brown is pressing his message of giving voice to the politically disenfranchised, apparently pointing to a climactic speech at the Democratic convention in New York in July. His claim would certainly be strengthened by an upset victory in California.

Mr. Clinton is hoping to use the California primary to build his case against President Bush for the fall, but he is being frustrated somewhat in that effort by the heavy media attention to Mr. Perot.

Brown aides also suggest that Mr. Perot, while not on the California primary ballot, may be undercutting Mr. Brown's message of protest against the status quo.

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