San Francisco — Democrats, like excited Forty-Niners, are prospecting for political gold in the West. With George Bush heading the Republican ticket, Democrats think they have a chance to strike it rich on the Pacific Coast, from Washington State to California. They could also do well in some other Western states, such as New Mexico.
``Prospects are unquestionably better for Democrats this year than in 1984, and better than in 1980,'' says Mervin Field, a veteran California pollster.
The West is emerging as a pivotal region in November. With 111 electoral votes in 13 Western states, it could become a counterweight to the South, which has steadily gravitated toward the Republican Party for the past 25 years. That is why many Democrats question the idea, proposed by some party strategists, of balancing the ticket with a Southerner such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.
A number of analysts say there is one huge difference in 1988 that should help Democrat Michael Dukakis in this region: the absence of Ronald Reagan from the Republican ticket.
President Reagan, a Californian whose horseback riding, affability, and optimism symbolize the West, swept almost everything on this side of the Mississippi River in both elections. Even after some difficult years in the White House, Mr. Reagan retains an enormous reservoir of goodwill in the West, says William Coblentz, a lawyer and Democratic sage in San Francisco.
On the other hand, Vice-President George Bush fails to excite Western voters, says Nelson Polsby, the incoming director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Despite his years of experience in the Texas oil business, ``he's a New Englander, as we all know, and as the Texans know,'' Dr. Polsby says. ``His only house is in Kennebunkport, Maine. He grew up in Connecticut. His daddy was a senator from Connecticut.''
``I think he's an Easterner,'' says Chip Nielsen, a Republican lawyer here. ``I don't know how he gets your juices up.''
Ginger Kathrens, a Colorado filmmaker who sometimes works with Republican candidates, puts it even more bluntly: ``George Bush is not a Western-style candidate, because you don't perceive him as having strength and fortitude. Bush has a tough time being tough.''
Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein says that with Mr. Bush at the top of the GOP ticket, Democratic chances have soared, even in hard-to-win states like Nevada and Montana.
Mrs. Feinstein contends that political trends are moving toward the Democrats. Of the 13 Western states that voted for Reagan in 1984, 10 now have Democratic governors, she observes. Democrats are also gaining Western seats in the US Senate.
If Governor Dukakis is to have any chance of winning the White House, he must probably carry California in November, analysts say. But Vice-President Bush could probably lose California and still get enough electoral votes with the help of the South to eke out a victory.
Political experts say the importance of California becomes apparent when one looks at the three Sunbelt mega-states - California, Texas, and Florida.
Bush will be heavily favored in Florida, where Walter Mondale got a paltry 34.7 percent of the vote in 1984. Bush claims Texas as his home state, and despite the scoffing by some critics, he ran very strongly there on Super Tuesday. That leaves California as the Democrats' most likely target to break the Republican ``lock'' on the Sunbelt.
A California strategy also fits nicely with recent Democrat gains along the Pacific shoreline. They recently picked up the governor's seat in Oregon and a US Senate seat in Washington.
Professor Polsby says that when analyzing recent changes in the West, however, one needs to avoid simple explanations. Every state is different, and each will require different strategies for Democrats.
Oregon, for example, might best be compared to Vermont, ``very progressive, full of nonpartisanship and all the rest of it,'' Polsby says.
Washington ``is a lot like the Upper Midwest, full of Scandinavians. It lives and dies by industries like timber - and Boeing. I think Seattle and Minneapolis are quite similar cities. Seattle also has an admixture of St. Paul, with Catholic working class.''
California, with 10 percent of the nation's population, has a bit of everything, perhaps the most diverse state in the nation.
New Mexico, on the other hand, has its own unique qualities, with a Hispanic population that has lived there for more than 500 years. Utah and Idaho are heavily Mormon, while Colorado and Wyoming are battling depressed economies.
Anni Williams, a communications consultant in San Francisco, says the greatest opportunity for Democrats here may be on social and cultural issues, as well as forward-looking economic policies.
Ms. Williams says California particularly has become issue-oriented, rather than party-oriented. Voters are ``fickle'' and ``highly volatile,'' she says.
With the economy humming here, voters are turning attention to long-term issues, such as care for the elderly. There is also growing interest in ties to the Orient, building ``a Golden Gate Bridge to Japan and Asia'' for the West's economy.
It's an opportunity for both parties, Williams says. Neither has yet seized it - but either Bush or Dukakis could in 1988.
A May 26 article included a map showing the states in which Walter Mondale won at least 40 percent of the popular vote in the 1984 presidential election. The map mistakenly failed to identify Massachusetts as one of those states.