California and Bush

CALIFORNIANS have been strong believers in the future since the days of the Gold Rush. But economic decline and fiscal disarray have sapped some of the state's native optimism, and with it the electoral hopes of many politicians, including President Bush.

For Republican candidates, California has long had its own "Solid South" - the populous suburbs of southern California, a heartland of conservatism. But one of the voices of that heartland, the Orange County Register, recently called for George Bush to step down from the race. Bill Clinton shows a substantial lead over Mr. Bush even in the affluent towns fanning out from Los Angeles.

Underlying Bush's plunge in the polls is a state economy shaken by cutbacks in aerospace and defense, as well as by the national recession. In two years, California has lost half a million jobs, 85 percent of them in its once solidly Republican southland.

Up in Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature argue over how to erase a $11 billion deficit caused largely by recession-driven declines in revenue and surges in health and welfare spending. Prodded by bankers who will no longer honor state IOUs, the sides are slowly moving toward a compromise on what to cut. Welfare will probably take a big whack. Educators and local officials can see the ax descending too.

Governor Wilson, Bush's campaign manager in the state and a man once thought to be a future presidential contender himself, may not even be able to attend the Republican convention unless the budget deadlock is broken.

The public, meanwhile, is more convinced than ever that the politicians in Sacramento are botching their job - an attitude that works against officeholders generally, even as far away as Washington.

All of which means that Bush and the GOP will have a difficult time keeping California's 54 electoral votes in their column this year. And if the Golden State deserts to the Democrats, the vaunted Republican "lock" on the West and South - a cornerstone of the party's presidential successes - could crumble.

This isn't inevitable. The president may still be able to articulate an economic vision that appeals to Californians. Their state, after all, is stunned but far from knocked out economically. California's diversified economy - with strong agricultural, manufacturing, and high-tech sectors - still has a bright future. The Pacific rim trade will continue to develop and generate wealth. The candidate who can help Californians recover their optimism will have the advantage.

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