Why Clinton Can't Keep His Eyes Off California

The Republican incumbent, a Yale-educated centrist who plays the role of right-winger, seems tired and out of touch. To deflect attention from a sick economy, he blasts his Democratic opponent for coddling criminals and veering out of the mainstream on social issues. Undeterred, his brainy foe chants the anthem of "change," touts a detailed economic-recovery plan, and tours the hustings by bus.

A flashback to the 1992 contest between George Bush and Bill Clinton? No, California, 1994. In a race as noteworthy for its national implications as its lack of originality, GOP Governor Pete Wilson, 60, is battling State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, 48, heiress to a Democratic political dynasty. So far, youth and charisma are beating GOP attempts to resurrect the ghost of Willie Horton. Brown holds a 10-point lead in the polls. Assuming each combatant fends off primary foes on June 7, the stage will be set for the year's pivotal political duel.

HUGE STAKES. Both political parties have much at stake in the great California shoot-out. Democrats, who have lost every major congressional election since President Clinton took office, desperately need a win to counter the impression that Clinton is a drag on the ticket.

After 12 Presidential visits, creation of a special White House office catering to California, and the infusion of $10 billion of disaster aid into the Not-So-Golden State, a Brown loss would be a personal rebuff to Clinton. And California's 54 electoral votes loom large in the President's own reelection strategy. Without a Democrat in Sacramento to organize get-out-the-vote drives, the state could slip away in '96. Indeed, the popularity Clinton enjoyed two years ago has faded. Only 38% of state voters now approve of his job performance.

Republicans see other portents. A Wilson victory would transform the battered pol into this year's "Comeback Kid." Since California has moved its June Presidential primary up to March, the acclaim and fund-raising base could make Wilson an instant '96 contender.

In the short run, the GOP views California as a giant missile range for testing explosive midterm election themes. With the national economy a non-issue, Republican candidates are assailing Democratic permissiveness on crime and immigration. California's defense-dependent economy remains in the tank. But thanks to Wilson's social-issues blitz--his ads pound Brown for opposing the death penalty and letting illegal aliens bankrupt the state--political pros expect a close race.

Wilson boasts of leading the push for a "three strikes and you're out" sentencing law. He is also battling the feds for $3.1 billion in expenses stemming from lax border-control policies and backing a ballot proposal that would bar children of illegal immigrants from state schools and clinics. "I'm dealing with real issues that are understandably stirring voters' emotions because they're outraged," Wilson says. Replies Brown: "I'm running a campaign of change and hope. He's running a mean-spirited campaign of darkness. The question I ask voters is, `Do you feel safer than you did four years ago?"'

Brown's anticrime plank includes mandatory sentencing laws and boot camps for first offenders, and she vows to crack down on the hiring of illegals. She's also promoting a modest economic blueprint (regulatory reform, no new taxes) in hopes of drawing business support. But it will take more than that to beat Wilson. Says one aide: "If the election is about crime, we lose. We have to focus on Wilson's miserable economic performance."

Can Brown make the Clinton script work again in a far different, far surlier California? National Democrats in need of a lift sure hope so. And no one's hoping more than Bill Clinton, whose political fortunes are tied closely to a revival of the California Dream.

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