Reagan's move east opens up competition to fill the vacuum at head of California GOP

President Ronald Reagan's recent farewell to California underscores an already much-debated question here. Who will inherit the former governor's mantle as leader of the state Republican Party?

State GOP leaders are quick to agree that Mr. Reagan's continuing influence in the politics of his home state cannot be underestimated. But his move to the nation's capital, they say, leaves a political vacuum here -- and the skirmishing to fill that opening is already under way.

The issue is not likely to be decided until a winner emerges from the gubernatorial primary, which is still more than a year off. But the battle lines are already being drawn -- with a helping hand from members of Reagan's "kitchen cabinet," who are believed to be interested in grooming another candidate to follow Reagan down the gubernatorial and, perhaps eventually, presidential path.

The emerging "heir apparent" in terms of support from the kitchen cabinet -- the wealthy and influential group of Californians who shepherded President Reagan's political career -- is Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, who leaped to state office from Hollywood's recording industry just two years ago.

Still, Reagan is expected to maintain his long-kept tradition of staying out of primary races. And even though Curb has garnered substantial kitchen cabinet support and a campaign war chest that already totals $1 million, observers here believe he may well lose the primary election.

His strongest, although as yet unannounced, opponent is expected to be Attorney General George (Duke) Deukmejian, a leading law-and-order proponent whose credits as a former state legislator include the writing of California's "use a gun, go to prison" law. Also figuring in the race as a dark-horse candidate is San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who finished last in the 1978 Republican gubernatorial primary.

"Curb's done a good job trying to convince people he's Ronald Reagan's heir apparent," says one Sacramento source, who predicts that just as John Connally locked up "board room" support in his quest for the presidency last year but failed to pull in many votes, so too will Curb fail to win support among California's rank-and-file Republicans.

But even as Republican leaders brace themselves for what is expected to a bitterly contested race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, they speak eagerly of a growing conservative momentum they hope will pull the political rug out from under the Democratic majority in the legislature.

It is a conservative trend, they say, which surfaced with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and continued nationwide with the election of President Reagan. By 1982, they note, Californians will have had eiht years of a Democratic governor -- a stretch they believe voters will want to break with a Republican administration.

In addition, state GOP leaders point to three special state Senate elections held in 1979 -- all Democratic seats that fell to Republicans, who then retained them in the 1980 vote. Of the 20 Senators up for reelection next year, more than half are Democrats, a percentage Republicans hope will work in their favor as they seek to capture the four seats they need to control the state Senate.

However, Republican legislative leaders also concede that the magnitude of their success in 1982 will depend greatly on whether President Reagan is able to make a substantial dent in the country's economic woes.

"It's ready-made for us, if we don't blow it," says state Sen. Ken Maddy, who in the past has been mentioned as a possible contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

"Everything points to a Republican sweep i n '82," he says. "The caveat is that Reagan has to do well.

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