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Is Clinton Courtship of California Over?

With Chelsea now at Stanford, Golden State hopes for more visits - and more attention.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 1997


Today President Clinton delivers daughter Chelsea to one of the Golden State's golden campuses: Stanford University.

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But behind the show of family hugs and photo ops, a more substantive debate rages over whether or not the president has failed to deliver something else to the nation's largest state: the promises of his first term and of Election '96.

Whether California voters feel warm or cool toward the Clinton presidency has ramifications beyond the president's own legacy. At stake is which way the state will tilt in the 2000 election - especially now that Gov. Pete Wilson (R) may mount a favorite-son bid for the White House and that Democratic heir apparent Al Gore is mired in a campaign-finance probe.

"Clinton has a great interest in leaving a legacy for whichever Democrat follows him in a presidential bid," says Tim Ransdell, director of the California Institute, a bipartisan think tank. "He also cares deeply about having a Democratic Senate and Congress. For those reasons, you can bet he will make the most of any of his forays into California" to visit Chelsea.

After courting California more than any national officeseeker in modern history, Mr. Clinton transferred California presidential politics - with its biggest-in-the-nation electoral prize - into the Democratic column. Californians went for Clinton over incumbent President Bush in 1992 and over Bob Dole in 1996.

Whither Clinton?

But Clinton has not been seen so often in California since Election Day. Moreover, the loss of five Californians in the Clinton Cabinet - Leon Panetta, William Perry, Mickey Cantor, Warren Christopher, and Ron Brown - has led many pundits and politicos to surmise that California has lost the president's ear.

"Movers and shakers in California want to know what this presidential administration is doing for their state," says Joe Cerrell, a leading Democratic consultant. "The operative question is, 'Was this just a brief love affair because it was an election year, or is the love affair continuing?' "

As state leaders offer assessments of how well Clinton has kept his promises, the debate not surprisingly falls along party lines.

"Bill Clinton has turned out to be the big talker and regretfully not the great deliverer [of promises]," says Sean Walsh, deputy chief of staff to Governor Wilson. "He shoveled the prospect of high-profile pork to the state, but when it came time to deliver the big-ticket items, he went AWOL."

Topping the list of Republican beefs against Clinton is federal immigration policy. The governor maintains that US failure to control its borders puts an undue burden on California, which shoulders the $3.5 billion costs of dealing with illegal immigrants.

"During the election he said, 'I feel your pain,' " says Mr. Walsh, "but we are still getting the bill. The meager money he brings the state is far outweighed by the mandates he continues to stick the state with."

Other failed promises: a pledge not to close McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento; a pledge not to move forward on a minimum-wage exemption that would complicate the state's mammoth welfare overhaul; and a recent pledge of millions in federal help on a cleanup of Lake Tahoe.