California Is Ready To Toss Eggs At Bush And Clinton

Leave it to Jerry Brown to give it a name. Struggling to describe a political process run amok, the former California governor dubbed the electoral system "a political gong show." And as the long Presidential nominating season lurches to a fitful conclusion, nowhere is the gong of public discontent tolling more loudly than in California.

On June 2, California's Presidential primary rings down the curtain on the nominating season. Other states, among them Ohio and New Jersey, hold contests that day. But with 348 Democratic delegates and 201 Republican, California is the richest prize.

CURDLED KARMA. Since George Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton are their parties' all-but-certain nominees, the Golden State ought to provide a triumphant finale: It's an opportunity for a little leisurely campaigning, some field-testing of general-election themes, and a final round of glitzy fund-raising.

But in 1992, the karma has curdled. Says Paul Maslin, a Los Angeles-based Democratic pollster: "Bush and Clinton are showing fundamental weakness in a crucial state." Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, agrees: "Historically, candidates have regarded California as the sunny uplands from which they can launch their conventions. This year, there are thunderclouds." The darkest: The Los Angeles riots, which exposed elected officials' impotence in the face of urban unrest.

And the economy offers no respite. While the rest of the nation inches toward recovery, California is still mired in recession. Unemployment stands at 8%. And despite $7 billion in tax hikes, a fresh $2 billion revenue shortfall has set off a new budget crisis.

Those megawoes, plus sniping from a fading Pat Buchanan, won't make President Bush's California task easy. But Clinton has his own headaches. His unfavorable rating is a lethal 54%. He runs third in polls of November election sentiment, behind Bush and the soaring quasi candidacy of independent H. Ross Perot. To make matters worse, Clinton still must contend with native son Brown, who has taken to campaigning alongside members of L.A. street gangs and is poised for one last, gonzo charge.

A California stumble wouldn't deny Clinton the nomination. But it would renew unease about his electability. "Clinton has a hell of a lot of work to do," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. A new California survey by pollster Mervin D. Field found that Clinton has the support of only 30% of registered Democrats, with Brown garnering 28% and former Senator Paul Tsongas scoring a nostalgic 23%. The shocker is Perot: Were he on the ballot, the poll shows he'd get 37% of the total Golden State vote, to Bush's 31% and Clinton's 25%.

Bush and Clinton are struggling to cope with the storm of discontent. After a visit to the L.A. riot corridor, the President promised $19 million in federal rebuilding funds and signaled a new willingness to work with Congress on $300 million more in emergency aid. Few Californians seemed impressed. "The riots have everybody screaming, 'What can you do for me?' at Bush," says Field.

TOUGH LINE. From here on, Bush will shun the riot zone. Instead, he'll concentrate on shoring up his base with California conservatives, who are furious with him for raising taxes, and with Reagan Democrats, who have been clobbered by the recession. Bush will head back into the state in late May, where he'll preview his fall attack on Clinton.

His keynote: a tough law-and-order stance and praise for the L.A. police. "Bush needs to put the Republican coalition back together," says GOP strategist Edward J. Rollins. "One way he does that is by stressing the thin blue line that stands between Californians and terrorism." But, cautions Marty Wilson, Bush's state campaign manager, "California's problems are boosting voter pessimism, and there's a question of how much that rubs off on Bush."

California poses a different problem for Clinton. Although he's been quick to tour L.A.'s riot-charred precincts, the Arkansan has been targeting blue-collar Democrats. In a recent visit, he toured El Cajon, a working-class suburb of San Diego, and told a sparse crowd at an outdoor rally that "we're losing ground economically." The solution: "a national economic game plan."

So far, Clinton is mostly being greeted with curiosity by folks in El Cajon and other blue-collar enclaves. Bill Watts, a 54-year-old San Diego retiree who listened impassively to Clinton's spiel, says: "It would take eight years to do half of what he's promising." Watts's conclusion: "He's a conventional politician, like Bush. They're both floundering, trying to figure out what to do." Right. And doing their best to take note of the high-pitched sound of voter rage: California screaming.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.