In the mercurial world of presidential politics, Ronald Reagan at this moment is perceived as the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination. But in his home state of California, where he once was considered almost certain to scoop up 17 percent of the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination for president, former Governor Reagan faces mounting political challenges.
The California GOP's winner-take-all primary system -- a political relic favored only by hard-core Reagan supporters -- is under legal attack and may well be challenged at the national party convention in Detroit this summer. But this fairly remote prospect is less troublesome to the reagan campaign than fresh statewide polls showing that his support here is softening -- among Republicans as well the general electorate.
Mr. Reagan's fiscal conservatism may be in line with today's Proposition 13 thinking, but fewer and fewer California voters remember his record as governor (1967-1975).
"People forget, and that's got to be a factor," concedes California Republican Party chairman Truman Campbell, a Reagan supporter. "There has to be some erosion, with the turnover of voters and newcomers to the scene."
In the California Republican primary four years ago, Mr. Reagan whipped President Ford by a 2-to-1 margin. While he still leads the current pack of GOP hopefuls, however, he is slipping. California pollster Mervin Field reported last week that, when matched against other declared Republican candidates and former President Gerald Ford (who has recently shown new interest in getting into the race), Mr. Reagan dropped from 50 percent last August to 43 percent at present. Without Mr. Ford in the mock primary, Mr. Reagan has fallen from a high of 61 percent last November to 49 percent.
In the 1976 presidential election, Californians went for Mr. Ford over Jimmy Carter by a scant 1.7 percent. Three months ago, according to the Field poll, Californians would have voted for Mr. Reagan over President Carter by a 3 percent margin. But today they would give the Democratic incumbent a 7 percent edge over Mr. Reagan, the poll indicates.
All of this means that Mr. Reagan cannot afford to consider his home state "in the bag," political observers say. And the continuing battle over the winner-take-all primary isn't helping.
Opponents of that system failed to get on the June ballot an initiative measure that would mandate proportional allocation of delegates among all candidates. Meanwhile, a Feb. 29 decision by the California Court of Appeal overturned an earlier ruling by a state judge that the winner-take-all primary was unconstitutional. The legal fight continues.
The vast majority of rank-and-file Republicans (including Reagan supporters) want their state to be in line with the rest of the country, according to recent polls, and many have vowed a delegate challenge in Detroit. If push thus came to shove, the matter would have to be settled by delegates from the other 49 states. This means that in order to win the nomination, Mr. Reagan would have to go into the convention with a clear majority of delegates, not including those from California.
"As a result, California's June 3 primary election, which not too long ago was shaping up as an anticlimatic event, appears now to be more important," says pollster Field. "Some of Reagan's opponents for the nomination are planning more intensive California campaigns."
So, too, is Mr. Reagan, who has fired his top campaign management and apparently will campaign more actively, notwithstanding the financial straits he now finds himself in. With more than 30 primaries to go, he already has spent two- thirds of the maximum campaign funds allowed under federal law.
Meanwhile, he must keep glancing over his shoulder at another Californian who still could upset the Reagan drive. Former President Ford, who now makes his home here and who played a key role in the failed ballot attempt to throw out winner-take-all, does not discourage speculation that he may yet enter the fray.