The loyal support among California Democrats that has nurtured Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential bid is becoming less loyal bit by bit. Party regulars here have been dribbling steadily away toward the front-running campaign of Walter Mondale.
These California politicians - many of them longtime associates and personal friends of Senator Cranston - gave the nudge that really started his campaign rolling last year with a straw poll of party delegates.
The lean senator is a sentimental favorite for many in California, especially the political activists and state leaders that have generally come to respect him over the decades.
But affection and respect are one thing, some are saying now, and presidential politics another.
''People realize that we're going to win with Mondale or we're going to lose with Mondale,'' says Bert Coffey, a Democratic national committeeman and a former chairman of the California Democratic Party. Mr. Coffey has been a Cranston supporter from the outset, but after the Iowa caucus later this month, he says, ''it's Mondale.''
Many of Cranston's supporters here never seem to have taken his campaign altogether seriously. For them, backing his native-son bid was both loyalty to a longtime colleague and a safe place to throw their support until a front-runner in the race became clear.
The slippage in Cranston support now is actually just a taking of serious positions among politicos, says Richard O'Neill, former state party chairman and one of California's wealthiest landowners.
Party regulars who want to be delegates to the national convention, he explains, ''have got to ride the winner in their district.''
Mr. O'Neill himself was a Cranston supporter until recently. Now he will run as a Mondale delegate.
A year ago, Cranston got a major lift nationally from California Democrats. They had decided to stir up some excitement at their state convention by holding a straw poll on the Democratic presidential candidates.
The national press took notice, and when Cranston emerged the favorite of 58 percent of the delegates, he began to get more national attention. Then the California Poll showed that Senator Cranston was also ahead of the pack with the public across the state.
Shortly afterward, a California Poll statewide sampling showed Cranston ahead of the pack with the public.
Much of the credit for Cranston's success in that early straw poll goes to Assemblyman Tom Hayden's political organization, Campaign for Economic Democracy. CED members amounted to about 25 percent of the delegates at that convention, as at this year's convention last weekend, and helped organize his victory in the straw poll.
Mr. Hayden says the CED will continue supporting the senator until Cranston himself decides that it is pointless. ''That's a ways off yet,'' he adds.
California's late primary will hurt Cranston, most politicians agree. If the California primary were held ''Super Tuesday'' in March, instead of in June, Cranston would have a reasonable chance of winning the state, Hayden surmises. But as it is, ''the rhythm of the campaign is back east.''
Cranston is like a small-state senator, Mr. O'Neill says. He knows opinionmakers up and down California. ''It's hard to take somebody seriously who has been your friend for years when he tells you he's going to run for president - even if he is a senator.''