California Seen as Key To Clinton Hopes in '96

But president must shift stance on immigration reform, experts say

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PRESIDENT Clinton, chastened by the Democratic drubbing in elections last week, vows to travel around the country more in the next two years selling his programs.

That may mean poking his head up regularly here in the state that pushed him over the top for president in 1992.

That, in turn, should mean a greater national focus on key concerns to California: immigration, crime, defense spending, education, and environment.

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Polls and analysts say Clinton is more popular - well, less unpopular - here than elsewhere, where even on the Republicans' night of nights, exit polls showed as many voters approve of the president as disapprove (47 percent each).

California's 54 electoral-delegate votes, one-fifth of those needed for the presidency, make the state vital for any candidate or party in 1996 when the state's early primary - March instead of June - will carry far more weight in the nominating process.

Moreover, Clinton spent a good part of his first two years wooing California voters, an investment from which he now sorely needs to salvage at least some political return.

``California is part of the new Democratic base, if there is one,'' says Mark DiCamillo, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Poll. ``The party appears weak everywhere now but will be trying to get any new footholds in the Northeast and West generally, California specifically.''

Any silver lining?

That said, the job of finding any Democratic silver lining in the Golden State is precarious at best.

``If Clinton is to have any chance of winning reelection in '96, he is going to have to find ways of appealing to the electorate in California and Texas,'' says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif.

``For now he is demonstrably on the wrong side of the most pressing issue, immigration,'' Mr. Heslop says.

Not only did Californians pass Proposition 187, the citizen initiative denying access by illegal aliens to schools, nonemergency health care, and other services, they did so by a commanding 2 to 1 margin.

At the same time, the initiative was a pillar in the biggest comeback in state history for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, also by a commanding margin.

``Wilson is by any measure the most likely of vice-presidential nominees,'' says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal, a monthly political magazine.

``That gives California a likely favorite son on the Republican, not Democratic side.''

Following the voter tide behind Prop. 187 - similar initiative drives are already under way in New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Florida, Washington, and Texas - Clinton needs to be seen on the side of major reform or he is sunk, several analysts say.

``By fundamental actions, not mere tinkering, he must be prepared to make up for the rhetorical mistakes of [his] attacking [Prop.] 187,'' says Heslop.

Don't count Clinton out yet, say several others here. Watch how the newly-constituted Republican House and Senate fare in pushing through their 10-point agenda promised in ``Contract With America.''

Attack is one option

That involves commitments within 100 days to votes on a balanced budget amendment, Congressional term limits, line-item veto, two-year limit on welfare eligibility, $500-per-child tax credits, regulatory relief for business, and more money for prisons and law enforcement.

``[Democrat] Harry Truman won reelection by demonizing the new Republican Congress of his time,'' notes Heslop. ``Clinton has every chance of doing the same if this new Congress doesn't perform.''

Part of that non-performance could come, ironically, on California's hottest issue, immigration, says Sherry Jeffe, political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

``Wilson has been hammering Washington for reimbursements due the state because of federally-mandated services to illegals,'' says Ms. Jeffe. ``A Republican Congress is less likely to foot that bill.''

That would mean mud on the faces of Republicans here.

Social issues

Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, says Clinton will benefit more if the new House and Senate focus on social issues rather than economic ones. The president will also be in a position to take credit if the national economy continues on its upward course.

Those eventualities, and the right nominee by the Republicans, could give Clinton a fighting chance. ``If the Republicans nominate a moderate, big-state governor, Clinton is in trouble,'' says Mr. Popkin. ``But he can beat [Texas Sen.] Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich, or Bob Dole in California.''

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