Democrats' Half-Hearted Grip on Coattails
As Clinton heads to California, big races there underscore Democrats' dilemma.
In his innumerable trips to California, President Clinton has raised millions for Democrats, cemented relations with high-tech impresarios and movie stars, and used the state as a golden backdrop for policy initiatives.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, as the Clinton motorcade travels once again through California cities over the next several days, the state will serve a different role: America's largest voting laboratory.
Many experts see Mr. Clinton's trip here as an early indicator for how the sex scandal that engulfs the presidency will play out in the November elections. In two dead-heat races - for governor and US senator - the Democratic candidates must find ways to welcome the president and tap his fund-raising prowess, without opening themselves to fresh attacks on the issue of character.
"Bill Clinton has become an intensely polarizing figure," says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. More so than any election since Watergate, he says, that factor could greatly boost or diminish both Democrat and Republican morale. "California will be a big test of how what is going on in Washington will play out in America."
The governor's race, in particular, carries high stakes. Whoever holds that office will rule over redistricting after the 2000 census - and a Democrat may be able to redraw congressional districts in a way that would eventually send many more party colleagues to the House of Representatives.
California already has 52 House seats - the most of any state - and is expected to pick up one or two more.
"How these congressional districts are redrawn in 2002 could have more impact on the House than anything else Bill Clinton ever does," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and publisher of statistics tracing congressional and state legislative races. "Whatever this scandal costs the Democrats elsewhere, if they can get [a Democratic governor] elected here, they can pick up 10 Democratic seats just by redrawing the [district] lines alone."
The race between Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D) and state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) is close, if lackluster. Marked by an absence of hot-button issues that have driven recent California elections, this campaign could hang on voter turnout - a factor that could hurt Democrats if voters are feeling disillusioned with Clinton.
Because of this, the Clinton visit that begins today is sending tremors through both campaign camps. Among registered voters, Democrat Davis is ahead of Republican Lungren 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a Sept. 20 Los Angeles Times poll. But among people most likely to vote, the race is even, 46 to 46. Moreover, Mr. Lungren has appeared to make gains in recent weeks after a statewide TV-ad blitz on the issue of character as "doing what's right when no one is looking."
A quiet welcome wagon
In the face of such ads, Mr. Davis is left figuring out how to welcome Clinton largess without appearing to embrace the president too closely. Despite his current problems, the president is still the biggest money-raiser for the Democrats, raising $3.5 million for Davis in a single event in August. For his part, Davis so far has condemned Clinton's conduct but lauded the president's record for California.