Which Candidate Will Be Burned Worst By The Fires In Los Angeles?

From the strife-torn '60s to the slashing Willie Horton campaign of 1988, race is often the subtext of Presidential elections, discussed by candidates only in loaded code words. But with the shocking verdict in the Rodney King police-brutality case and the ensuing devastation in Los Angeles, race has become a new and unpredictable element in an already volatile campaign. This poses risks for both President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.

The conventional wisdom holds that a crisis boosts an incumbent President by giving him a chance to show leadership. And historically, racial tension has played into the hands of law-and-order Republicans. In the end, this year may be no different. But some early reactions to the urban unrest should send a few shivers through the White House.

IN A MINE FIELD. With his slow response to the disorders--three tepid, contradictory statements on the first day of rioting--Bush may have revived voter concerns that he's at sea on domestic issues. A Times Mirror survey found that Bush's double-digit lead of mid-April evaporated right after the riots (table). In a poll taken between Apr. 30 and May 3, the President got the backing of 33% of voters, putting him in a virtual tie with Clinton and Ross Perot at 30% each. In a two-man race, Bush's 46% to 43% lead over Clinton was within the poll's margin of error. "By taking the middle ground, Bush alienated everybody a little bit," says Republican consultant Eddie Mahe Jr.

Clinton still has a lot of work to do before he can capitalize on the President's slippage. Most of the disaffected Bush backers are parking their votes with Perot. And the riots put the Democratic challenger in a mine field. The White House is linking the horrifying scenes of violence from L.A. to Democratic support for permissive welfare policies and Great Society handouts. Overlooked in the barrage is a startling fact: As a freshman congressman from Texas, Bush voted for nearly all of Lyndon Johnson's domestic spending initiatives.

Clinton will make much of that fact, but he must avoid a trap. If he endorses calls for massive inner-city aid, he'll jeopardize his appeal to the middle class and blue-collar Reagan Democrats. But if he ignores urban woes, he could alienate his staunchest backers. "Clinton is on the razor's edge--to keep the black vote and not to lose a fair amount of the white vote," says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden.

WHITE FEARS. Clinton is trying to bridge the gap. He tells audiences that it is in their interest to get the poor off welfare, to hold deadbeat parents accountable for child support, and to help tenants in public housing projects to buy their homes and police their neighborhoods. "He is challenging traditional Democratic values," says Democratic activist Mark Siegel. Adds Mike Espy, the first black Democrat ever elected to Congress from Mississippi: "Clinton is preempting the Republicans' divisive strategy."

Playing the race card has been good politics for Republicans. Ads attacking quotas saved North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1990, and assaults on welfare cheats helped elect Kirk Fordice governor of Mississippi last year. Bush strategists won't do anything that crude. But they may use images of L.A. to stoke white fears. Clinton, the racial healer, declares that such naked appeals to racial resentment won't work this time. But not even Democrats cheered by Bush's fresh plunge in the polls are confident that Clinton will be proven right come November.

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