Riots Could Have Pivotal Effect on Politics in California

THE riots here have transformed politics in the nation's most important electoral state - with implications that will be felt from the presidency to the precinct house.

Law and order, a favorite California motif, is once again high on the state's agenda, which may help Republicans - particularly conservatives.

The Rodney King verdict and its violent aftermath, though, have also made domestic policy and the problems of the inner city a klieg-light concern, which Democrats feel they are better positioned to exploit.

There are complicating factors at work, however, that make it uncertain how either of these issues will play out in a state that is still restive from the worst urban rioting this century and uneasy about its economy.

"The barn gate is now wide open," says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Every issue is up for grabs. I don't think there is a party, a candidate, or an ideology that owns any of these issues."

What does seem certain is that the state will now become the prime arena for shaping and testing many of the national themes that will be used in the fall campaign.

At the same time, enduring tension between two fundamental forces in the Golden State - those trying to preserve their slice of the California dream and those trying to become a part of it - will be tested at the ballot box.

The result, says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School, will either be a closing of the divide or an "irreparable" split. Could strengthen the right

The conventional wisdom in many circles has been that the recent civil unrest would lead to a shift to the right in California, as well as in national, politics. After all, Richard Nixon was aided in his rise to the presidency in 1968 by a strong law-and-order platform in the wake of racial and student unrest. Two years earlier, another conservative, Ronald Reagan, took over in Sacramento not long after the Watts riots.

The 1990s, however, are not the 1960s. Some analysts, such as Kevin Phillips, publisher of the "American Political Report," argue that Nixon's rise was partly a rejection of the Democratic rule at the time. It is the Republicans, though, who have now occupied the White House for 12 years, and they hold the executive mansion in Sacramento.

Moreover, some think President Bush is vulnerable to the charges that he is a George-come-lately to the problems of urban America.

An important test of Republican sentiment will come in the June 2 primary here. In times of tumult, there is often an impulse to support the status quo, which could help the president. He is also the one that occupies the Oval Office - with all the power that implies. "He is the president. He can propose and implement," says Ms. Jeffe. "But if he proposes and doesn't deliver, he runs a huge risk."

Most of the ideas Mr. Bush has put forth run along traditional Republican lines: a crackdown on crime in targeted neighborhoods coupled with more social programs, such as to prevent drug abuse; worker retraining; homeownership for public housing tenants; tax breaks for businesses that invest in the inner city.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who has been here twice since the riots, agrees with many of these ideas but faults the president for not pushing an urban agenda before. He has stepped up his accusations that Bush has divided the nation along class and racial lines, which many analysts think is now an effective message.

Mr. Clinton, though, still has to contend with Jerry Brown in the primary here, and the former California governor has been running well in the polls. Debatable effect on Perot

As for the shadow candidate, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, he remains as much a wild card as ever: Some analysts think the GOP-Democratic bickering over antipoverty programs benefits the "can-do" outsider, while others say Perot will falter as he undergoes more scrutiny.

In the races for US Senate in California, the civil unrest will have a marked, if uncertain, impact as well. Some analysts such as Ms. Jeffe say it could hurt women candidates in the primary, since when crime becomes a big issue voters are sometimes drawn to male images of strength.

That could be an omen for two Democrats, Congresswoman Barbara Boxer and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who are seeking different Senate seats. But the riots have knocked other issues, such as the check-writing scandal, off the front pages, which is good for Ms. Boxer. Some candidates helped

Sal Russo, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist, says the riots may help Senate candidates who are better known, such as Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy (D). His reasoning: The upheaval has distracted attention from races that were already garnering little notice, and those behind in the polls will face a tougher time getting their message across.

Among GOP primary contenders, one school says conservatives will benefit from new crime concerns, while another says a balance of toughness and compassion will prove appealing.

Where the riots may have the most impact is the fight over reforming the Los Angeles Police Department. Charter Amendment F would limit the tenure of the chief to two five-year terms and grant more control to a civilian Police Commission, the City Council, and mayor.

Most analysts see the reforms now winning - particularly since their most visible critic, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, has been under fire for his handling of the riots. But even here things may not be as they seem. Arnold Steinberg, a GOP consultant, says: "If Amendment F is seen as a term-limit measure, it wins. If it is seen as shackling the hands of the police, it loses."

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