Stakes high for Clinton in California elections

October 17, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Sun Staff Correspondent

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- He's not on the Nov. 8 ballot anywhere in California, but no one outside the state has more at stake in the results than President Clinton. What happens here in the contests for one seat in the Senate and 52 in the House of Representatives and for the governorship could have a critical impact on the president's next two years in office -- and on his chances for re-election in 1996.

In his challenge to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Republican Rep. Michael Huffington has used heavy negative television advertising to put her re-election in severe jeopardy. A Huffington victory would give the Republicans a key pickup toward the seven seats they need to regain control of the Senate they last held in 1986. That outcome for 1995-1996 likely would make Mr. Clinton's stormy first two years seem a sunny Sunday stroll by comparison.

In the campaign for the nation's largest state delegation to the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee rates 11 of the 30 California seats held by Democrats to be vulnerable; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee considers only three of the 22 House seats held by Republicans to be prime targets. GOP victories here could contribute in a major way to the party's long-shot goal of 40 pickups to gain House control for the first time in 38 years -- and even greater congressional woe for the president.

And if the governor's race between incumbent Republican Pete Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown turns out as the polls now indicate -- Mr. Wilson ahead by 50 percent to 42 among registered voters surveyed by the Los Angeles Times -- )) Mr. Clinton could have a strong new 1996 challenger on his hands. Mr. Wilson's lead is even wider in the poll among voters considered likely to vote: 54 percent to 41.

"Obviously we have a great desire to take Pete Wilson out, not only for now but or 1996," says Don Sweitzer, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "It's a lot better to have a Democratic governor in a presidential election year." With the critical Senate seat and large House contingent, he says, "it makes California of just monumental importance."

Mr. Sweitzer cites the $1 million the national committee has put into a coordinated campaign of all California candidates this fall, more than half the amount spent by the DNC in all states in 1990. A field operation of 300 workers in 100 offices is in place here.

Concerning Mr. Wilson especially, Mr. Sweitzer says, his re-election would make him an immediate presidential prospect. "The governor of the state with the most electoral votes [54] is obviously a big barracuda." And he adds, in a jumbled metaphor that nevertheless makes the point: "That's why we want to cut his legs off."

The California results will be particularly significant to President Clinton because the state is so crucial to his re-election hopes. With widespread erosion of his support elsewhere, and especially in the South and other Western states, his campaign strategists look to California as the linchpin for 1996, just as it was in 1992, when he won the state handily.

Knowing the political importance of California, the president in 1993 assigned a special aide to address the needs of this defense-oriented state, one of the last to start climbing out of the recession of the George Bush years. Mr. Clinton's administration responded quickly to the epidemic of earthquakes, wildfires, landslides and floods that have plagued it, but still the same disaffection that has befallen him elsewhere has taken its toll here.

Seeking to capitalize on that, Republican candidates for the Senate and House and even Governor Wilson have sought to make their campaigns at least in part referendums on Mr. Clinton, painting their Democratic opponents as Clinton supporters or even "clones," as some television ads put it.

Nowhere has this tactic been more conspicuous than in the Huffington campaign against Mrs. Feinstein. And for good measure, Mr. Huffington has referred to his campaign in part as "a referendum on the Clinton-Feinstein-Boxer regime," throwing in California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, who is not up for re-election.

Mr. Huffington, a Texas millionaire who moved to California and won a House seat in 1992 by spending about $5 million of his own money, runs as a "citizen politician" who pledges he will serve only two Senate terms if he is elected. He slaps the "career politician" label on Mrs. Feinstein, referring not only to her service as mayor and a city supervisor in San Francisco but also to her losing race against Mr. Wilson in 1990 before winning a short two-year term in the Senate in 1992.

After a speech to Alameda County Democrats in Oakland, Mrs. Feinstein said she welcomed a Clinton visit -- one is tentatively scheduled for next Saturday -- saying, "I happen to think he's a help in California." Then, however, she added: "This election is not about Clinton."

Tapping the anger

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