Ronald Reagan is riding the tallest he's ever ridden in his home state -- and California Republicans are hoping to gallop to victory behind him as they plot their 1982 election strategies.
According to a just-released California poll, President Reagan enjoys "good" or "excellent" ratings for his overall job performance from 61 percent of his fellow Californians, and "poor" or "very poor' from only 12 percent.
That 5-to-1 approval rating is substantially higher than the 3-to-1 favorable rating Mr. Reagan won during his most popular period as governor -- and is the highest rating any president has enjoyed among Californians in the past 20 years , with the exception of John F. Kennedy. What is more, the President's popularity is surprisingly high among Democrats as well -- 42 percent give the former Hollywood actor excellent-to-good ratings, while only 20 percent rate him poor-to-very poor.
The poll results, which California Poll director Mervin Field describes as "phenomenal," are more than just good news for Reagan, however. They surely will buoy the hopes of GOP contenders who eye 1982 as an opportunity to recapture the governor's office, hang on to a US Senate seat, take over the Democratic-controlled state Senate, and perhaps topple the hair-thin (22 to 21) margin now held by Democrats in the state's congressional delegation.
"It gives the Republicans a leg up," acknowledges Mr. Field. "But they're going to have to capitalize on it."
To do that, however, Golden State Republicans must first overcome one major obstacle -- their own fractious squabbling.
Although the 1982 elections are nothing more than a speck on the average voter's horizon, GOP candidates have been running for months now, waging a veritable tug of war over the Reagan mantle. It is a battle they will have to settle without White House help, however. Although President Reagan has committed himself to three GOP fund-raising appearances during his four-week vacation here, he has a long-standing policy of refusing to endorse candidates in primary races.
In what is likely to be the most contetious primary race -- the bid for the office now held by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who is hoping to pick up his party's nomination for US Senate -- Lt. Gov. Mike Curb already has leaped to the fore of the money race, with a $2 million war chest; made much ado of his close connectiions with some of the key members of Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" of California political allies; and fired off a few charges that his leading GOP opponent, state Attorney General George Deukmejian, is not a true conservative. Mr. Deukmejian, for his part, loves to tell reporters that he campaigned with Reagan in his first race for governor in 1966, and that, as a state senator, he worked closely with Governor Reagan in passing key legislation.
Although the US Senate primary has yet to heat up, it too promises to be a bitter, splintered race. S. I. Hayakawa, who currently holds the Senate seat in question, is widely expected to lose the primary. But the former university president has resistd GOP efforts to persuade him not to run, appearing instead to grow more pugnacious every day.
Already, the list of Republicans who either are planning to or thinking of challenging him is a long one, with the big-name attraction of two stellar conservative families: US Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the GOP patriarch; and Maureen Reagan, the President's daughter.
Also lining up for the fight are US Rep. Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey Jr., who has alienated conservatives in the past for stands such as his opposition to the Vietnam war; San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who had thrown his hat into the gubernatorial ring, but now appears likely to heed urgings that he switch races as the most likely candidate to beat Governor Brown in the Senate race; and a handful of archconservatives, among them US Rep. Robert Dornan and state Sen. John Schmitz, who are expected to fracture the race even further by connering the hard-core conservative vote.
Even as the state's GOP contenders elbow each other for the most advantageous position for basking in Reagan's glow, however, many political observers say Republicans should be ready to take shelter if that warm glow turns to political heat.
Although Reagan is riding high today in the wake of his budget and tax-cut victories, they warn, he could be low in the polls a year from now, depending on how his economic programs work and on how he handles the social issues that hard-line conservatives are trying to thrust onto his agenda. An association that today appears to be a blessing could then become a liability, these analysts say.
"The Reagan successes are working in their behalf now, but they may not in another year," cautions Stuart Spencer, a political consultant who served as a top adviser to President Reagan during last year's campaign.
"I'd give them [Republican candidates] a Jerry Brown primer on politics," he continues. "They must establish their own identity and then pick the issues that Reagan is on the right side of [in terms of popular support] and identify themselves with those."