California primary could be Democratic clincher. June 7 vote `crucial no matter how you cut it'. CAMPAIGN '88

California, whose pull-up-the-rear presidential primary has counted little in recent years, is poised to play a significant role in 1988. Its best chances of leaving a thumb print are on the Democratic side, which could well still be splintered when the state's June 7 primary comes around.

In that case, the huge pool of delegates here - 336, more than any other state's - could push one of the nominees over the top.

Even if it doesn't, however, pundits say the state would be critical to gathering momentum going into a brokered convention - and in wooing uncommitted delegates on the way there.

``California will be very significant,'' says California pollster Mervin Field.

The Republican contest, on the other hand, is less problematic. With Vice-President George Bush's sweeping victory in the South this week, many analysts believe he will have the nomination sewn up before California.

If he should suddenly falter, however, the state would be critical in a contested race: Unlike the Democratic contest, the Republicans' 175-delegate California primary is a winner-take-all affair.

Beyond the importance of candidate selection, however, the California primary usually acts as a tuneup for the general election in November. As the last primary for Democrats, it gives candidates a chance to sharpen messages and sometimes exposes weaknesses in pitches or policies.

``It is the warm-up act,'' says Joe Cerrell, a California-based political consultant.

That warm-up will be especially crucial to the Democrats this time around. If Mr. Bush is the eventual GOP nominee, he will likely run strong in his home state of Texas in November.

Some analysts say that means the Democrats will almost have to carry California next fall to win the White House. Thus it will be important for the Democratic candidate to appeal to Golden Staters.

``California is crucial for the Democrats in November no matter how you cut it,'' says Peter Kelly, the state Democratic chairman.

In recent years, California's impact on the presidential selection process has been nominal. The last time it played a major role for the Republicans was in 1964, when Barry Goldwater bested Nelson Rockefeller in a spirited battle, setting the stage for the Arizonan's emergence at the San Francisco nominating convention.

Since then, local sons Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have dominated most of the races.

On the Democratic front, California's role has been more provocateur than princemaker. In 1976, then-Gov. Jerry Brown beat Jimmy Carter, though the Georgian went on to easily win the nomination.

Sen. Edward Kennedy triumphed over nominee Carter in the 1980 California primary. And in 1984, Gary Hart out-polled delegate-rich Walter Mondale.

The state's influence has been small enough that some politicians - mainly Democrats - have wanted to move the date of the primary forward. But the idea has foundered in the face of reticence from Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who has opposed it partly because of cost.

The numbers this time point to a spirited showdown, at least for the Democrats. With 2,082 delegates needed to nominate a candidate, one of the three current front-runners - Gov. Michael Dukakis, Sen. Albert Gore Jr., or the Rev. Jesse Jackson - would have to garner more than 80 percent of the remaining delegates between now and June 7 to lock up the nomination before the last major primaries in California, New Jersey, Montana, and New Mexico.

``I don't think there is any way the nomination will be decided before you get here,'' says Mr. Kelly.

None of the Democratic contenders seem to have a distinct advantage in the state.

Governor Dukakis has been running well in early polls and has raised the most money here. His high-tech, environmental messages would probably play well.

``If California were the next state, Dukakis would look very strong,'' Mr. Field says.

On the other hand, Mr. Jackson, who ran in 1984, is the best- known Democratic candidate and has a solid base of support in California. He also has prominent backers, including Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Mr. Gore is relatively unknown here.

Still, California voters are just beginning to tune into the race, and a lot will happen in the next three months.

One key factor will be money. Many presidential candidates in the past have spent so much getting through the early primaries that they have had little left for California, where heavy media usually is the key to victory.

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