Little drama left in California's big primary

The Oregon and Michigan primaries May 20 have done little to dispell the sense of diminishing drama in Republican and Democratic presidential nomination races here in the West.

If anything, the California primary June 3 is likely to accentuate, not change, the overall pattern of state primaries and caucuses that preceded it, say political observers and operatives here.

At best, George Bush's win in Michigan over Ronald Reagan -- offset by a Reagan victory in Oregon -- has braced the Bush troops for a final march into California.

On the Democratic side, Edward Kennedy's loss to Jimmy Carter in Oregon similarly is not deterring the senator from a final thrust at the presidency in California and th eseven other June 3 primaries, when the final fifth of delegates are chosen.

Oddly, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Kennedy appear to be losing momentum among Democrats -- with neither gaining support at the other's expense -- in the nation's most populous state.

"Democratic voters in California are down on Carter, down on Kennedy," says the noted California pollster, Mervin Field. "The economic issue hurst them both."

"Before, californians had always been optimistic about their future," Mr. Field continues. "Now they're pessimistic. They're cutting down because of inflation and unemployment. They're down on Carter. But Kennedy's nostrum -- wage and price controls -- would have had more appeal if heavy joblessness had come six months earlier."

"It would be symbolic for Kennedy to beat Carter in California by 10 to 15 points, but it wouldn't mean much in delegates," Mr. Field says.

Only two parts of the nomination drama remain, says one California Republican strategist: "Who will Reagan pick as a running mate, and will June 3 prive so dismal for Kennedy that he can't play the Trojan horse role at the Democratic convention?"

The Kennedy forces say this Trojan horse strategy -- challenging mr. Carter's delegate control on the convention floor -- remains alive despite the Oregon loss.

Polls put the Democratic rivals roughly five points apart in California, says James Foster, Senator Kennedy's northern California coordinator. Voter cynicism about the Democratic candidates, he says, has more to do with a decline in competence in presidential performance the past 12 years than with the two 1980 candidates themselves. "With two other candidate you would still see cynicism," Mr. Foster says.

"We're not spending anywhere near what we would like in california," Mr. Foster says. "We may not win in Ohio [June 3], but we're in good shape in California and New Jersey. Either the President is going to debate the senator before the convention in one of these three states or he will have to debate him on the convention floor."

"Politically, you would have expected some signs of a landslide for Carter [ and] pressure on Kennedy to get out," says James Flug, national spokesman for the Kennedy campaign. "Instead, you have Democrats like the Carter-Mondale Minnesota chairman, Warren Spannus, saying the Democrats might fare better in November if Carter withdraws."

The Carter people, hoping that an Oregon victory would strenghten the perception that the race is over, spen heavily there for a last- minute TV blitz.

Meanwhile, George Bush has readied a California campaign based almost totally on the new media -- paid television ads and programs and "free" TV, radio, and newspaper coverage.

"There's little drama left," says Richard Bond, California manager for the Bush campaign, "apart from the drama of meeting Ronald Reagan on his home ground." The Bush people concede they would have to come from far behind to overtake Mr. Reagan in California.

"We know it's the ninth inning," Mr. Bond says. "But we still see three outs , nine pitches left."

The Bush campaign has until May 26 to commit itself financially to a California effort. "We have to put the money on the table next Monday," Mr. Bond says. A final-week Bush itinerary, keying on Los Angeles, san Francisco, and Sacramento, plus a media campaign focusing on a dozen California regions, has been prepared, awaiting only a goahead from national headquarters.

"We face a formidable task, but one with considerable appeal to many of us," Mr. Bond says. "Bush has made himself into a credible major political figure in this campaign. At this time last year less than 3 percent of the national public knew who George Bush was."

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