Go West, Young President

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

December 04, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has hobnobbed with Hollywood celebs. He's dribbled a basketball in L.A.'s riot-scarred 'hood. He's jogged the beach at San Diego, empathized with wildfire victims and talked job retraining with defense workers.

He's become a bi-coastal president, to a degree unmatched by any of his predecessors except those, like Ronald Reagan, who were Californians. By one estimate, he's already spent more time in the state than George Bush did in four years as president.

Today, for the second time in two weeks, Mr. Clinton is back in southern California. In order to fit the trip into his schedule, he'll have to take a red-eye flight back on Air Force One (there's a comfortable bedroom aboard).

Mr. Clinton may lack discipline in certain areas, but politics isn't one of them. Before the inauguration, a top political adviser said he would love to see the president travel to California once a month. This weekend's visit is his eighth since taking office.

"He has been religious about it," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, who gives Mr. Clinton high marks for connecting culturally with Californians and for plugging into the state politically.

With so much at stake for him and his party, it's hardly surprising that the president is worshiping regularly at the altar of California politics.

Elections approach

The state has high-profile elections next year for governor, U.S. Senate and 52 congressional seats, plus a new, early presidential primary in 1996. Its 54 electoral votes, many more than any other state, are fully one-fifth of the number it will take to keep the presidency.

Mr. Clinton is the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry California in a presidential election. But he has a long way to go if he is to become the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win it twice.

This year, Mr. Clinton's reputation has gone up and down as much in California as it has nationally. That isn't unexpected, since the state is home to one out of every 10 Americans, and therefore its mood swings exert a strong pull on the national picture.

In the most recent statewide poll by the non-partisan Field organization, in late October, 38 percent of Californians gave Mr. Clinton a job rating of "excellent" or "good."

"For a first-term, first-year president, those numbers are not all that positive," says Mark diCamillo of the Field group. At the same point in his presidency, George Bush was rated "excellent" or "good" by 52 percent of Californians surveyed.

The collapsing state economy that brought Mr. Bush down (he got only 33 percent of the California vote in 1992) has refused to turn around. The state's unemployment rate eased last month to 8.6 percent, but that is far above the national average and the highest among the major states.

For Mr. Clinton, the danger is that California's economic malaise will become his own, particularly since many voters there already blame the administration for what they regard as excessive cuts in the state's vast military establishment.

"The public here will rate the president on his performance as president," says Mr. diCamillo, "not on how many times he comes out to California and empathizes with people."

Sharper focus

In recent months, Mr. Clinton has begun to sharpen the focus of his California effort, and his latest visits have looked like warm-ups for the 1994 and 1996 elections, with crime and jobs as central themes. During today's visit, he'll preside over a seminar on the economy, tell aerospace workers his plans to convert defense jobs into civilian ones, warn entertainment industry moguls about excessive violence on TV and in movies, and help raise a couple of million dollars for his party.

Many Californians, fearful that they will be the next to lose their jobs, are already deeply anxious about the future. Their tolerance for political talk ran out long ago.

"We're looking for the three wise men from the East bearing gifts in this holiday season," said a leading Democratic strategist in the state. "If they are bearing gifts, they'll be welcomed."

Mr. Clinton may shower additional presents on the state today, officials say. Already, California has started to get a number of goodies, including a big initial piece of the $19.5 billion scheduled to be spent over the next five years to find civilian uses for military technology.

Indeed, California is getting more than its share from the tight federal purse, in the view of outsiders such as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, whose state has needs that are easily as great. But no matter how much California receives, Congress isn't likely to make enough money available to satisfy the state's desires.

"Clinton's like a traveling salesman in California who looks real, real good," says Roger Morris, a presidential historian who is working on a Clinton biography. "But when the product comes, it's not what it seemed to be, because the manufacturing process back in Washington is flawed."

Learning from mistakes

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