WASHINGTON -- The latest opinion poll numbers from California -- in which Democratic nominee Bill Clinton leads President Bush 62 percent to 28 percent -- have hit the 1992 campaign with explosive force. It is suddenly clear to everyone that the president is in serious trouble.
California is a special case in the political arithmetic this year: 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the 270 needed to win the election. From the outset, the conventional wisdom in both parties is that it is a "must win" state for Clinton, and now the new Mervin Field poll indicates he has an excellent chance of winning it.
The poll had a particular impact, however, because it is the latest in a series of surveys showing Clinton leading Bush all over the country, although not everywhere by such bizarre 34-point margins. One poll even shows the Democrat ahead by 7 percent in Virginia, one of a handful of states that have been so Republican in presidential elections that strategists in both parties all along have written them off as Bush states.
No one believes the California numbers are etched in stone; on the contrary, even the most ebullient Democrats have no reason to believe Bush will not eventually be more competitive in the state. But the findings on the nation's largest state are taken seriously not only because of the 54 votes but also because of what they imply about the shape of the campaign.
One clear lesson seems to be that former supporters of Texas billionaire Ross Perot are moving heavily -- 4 to 1 in this poll -- toward Clinton rather than Bush. If that is true elsewhere, it may mean the Democrats can be seriously competitive in other states in which the president is a heavy favorite (Texas is an example) and in which there has been a strong element of Perot support. If it is accurate to say that Clinton cannot win without California, it is probably accurate to say that Bush cannot win without the 32 electoral votes of Texas.
A second inference that can be drawn from California is that the economic issue is just as significant as the Democrats have been hoping. The unemployment rate in California is about 9.5 percent, almost 2 points above the national average. If that joblessness is a major element in California, the same may be true in other industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Illinois, two major battlegrounds, as well as Texas.
The flip side of the assumption that the Democrats must win California is the premise that Bush can afford to lose those 54 electoral votes because he has such a solid base elsewhere, including in Florida and Texas and much of the South. But if the president is as vulnerable as the numbers suggest, that premise may be faulty.
The orthodox thinking on the South has been that Clinton could be expected to win his own state of Arkansas and Sen. Al Gore's Tennessee but not much else. But strategists in both parties now see several other Southern states in play -- North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and perhaps even Alabama -- because white as well as black politicians in the region seem to have accepted the ticket as far more marketable than those led by Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. If that proves to be the case, the shape of the campaign will be dramatically different from what was being foreseen even a month ago.
At the least, the California figures suggest Clinton strength in several states in which he already was given a good chance that now may have been enhanced by Perot's withdrawal. That group would include Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin, Montana and Vermont.
It would be imprudent to suggest that opinion polls in July are any reliable indicator of what may happen more than three months from now. There are too many turns in the road still ahead. No one in politics has forgotten how Dukakis frittered away a 17-point lead four years ago or how Jimmy Carter only squeaked home after leading by as much as 30 points in July 1976.
But, taken as a group, the polls paint a picture of a president who is at least far more vulnerable than anyone imagined he could be a year ago. And the California numbers are startling enough so that no one can miss the point.