GOP Dreams of US House Hinge on California Race

With the economy struggling, poll shows voters opting for Wilson

REPUBLICANS are California dreamin'. Unless Democrats catch a last-minute wave, Republican Pete Wilson appears headed for victory over Democrat Dianne Feinstein in America's most vaunted election of 1990, the California race for governor.

Strong Republican finishes in California, Texas, and Florida - the Big 3 of the Sunbelt - are buoying GOP election prospects, despite President Bush's sagging popularity. But the key to everything is California.

Republican strategist Ed Rollins calls California's election on Tuesday the most important nonpresidential contest in the United States in at least 30 years.

Gary Koops, an official with the National Republican Congressional Committee says unless the GOP wins this one, ``it will almost eliminate any chance of taking control of the House during the 1990s.''

California pollster Mervin Field says that although Mrs. Feinstein once led this race, the big issues - particularly the economy and crime - now are breaking Mr. Wilson's way.

At the same time, Feinstein's perceived areas of strength with voters - the environment, education, and abortion - are of declining importance as the national economy weakens and concern rises about war in the Persian Gulf.

``This isn't an electorate that seems to be in a high-risk mood,'' says Joe Scott, who edits a political newsletter in southern California.

To back up Wilson's campaign, the GOP has launched an aggressive, $7 million get-out-the vote effort that could be make the difference in a close contest. More than 6 million voters are being contacted.

With momentum on his side, Wilson is playing it safe - one of his political hallmarks. Traditionally, the senator has made a career of becoming the ``acceptable alternative'' by raising lots of money, running an efficient campaign, making no mistakes. That strategy worked well in his first successful Senate race against former Gov. Jerry Brown in 1982.

Faced with a new California poll that shows her trailing 47 to 39, Feinstein has gone on the attack as a populist Democrat who would be an agent of change in Sacramento.

Feinstein's strategists believe there are two elements at work among California voters this year.

The first is widespread concern about the economy, which recent polls indicate works in the Republicans' favor.

But at the same time, Californians are disturbed about threats to their way of life - gang warfare, deteriorating schools, smog, clogged highways - all of which call for change. These play into Feinstein's hands, they believe.

``There is a comfortable old-shoe quality about Wilson,'' says William Carrick, who is Feinstein's campaign manager. But ``if the election is really about change, we'll win.''

Mr. Carrick admits that in these closing hours, Feinstein needs to pick up ground. Both sides are closing the race with a barrage of TV ads - $3 million worth from the Wilson camp, $2 million from Feinstein. Realizing she is behind, Feinstein is hitting hard in her commercials.

She accuses Wilson, for example, of voting for the largest tax increase in the history of California when he served as a state legislator. She also charges that he has the worst voting record in the United States Senate.

Feinstein will also try to portray Wilson as just a ``do-nothing, status quo'' duplicate of the outgoing Republican governor, George Deukmejian. The TV script says:

``For eight years, the Republicans have taken us in the wrong direction. Eight years of uncontrolled growth, traffic, and smog. Schools that don't teach. Criminals that don't get punished. Eight years of a philosophy that favors the rich and hurts everyone else. It's time for a change.''

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School, says that ``what Dianne Feinstein needed to do is position herself as the candidate of change without being the candidate of risk.'' Feinstein hasn't been able to do that, Ms. Jeffe says, adding: ``At this point, she has to take risks.''

But Jeffe cautions prognosticators that while the trends are moving in Wilson's favor, the race is still fluid - and close.

Carrick says the bottom line is: Will there be a Democratic surge at the end? Two key groups Feinstein is depending upon are older Democratic women and blue-collar Democratic men.

But Feinstein isn't getting help from one place she expected it, the so-called ``gender gap,'' or the tendency of women to support Democratic candidates.

Instead, a ``reverse gender gap'' has taken hold, with Wilson gaining an extra boost among men.

If Wilson does win, it will put Republicans on track toward getting their share of seven new congressional seats in California in 1992. In addition, three seats will be added in Texas, and four in Florida, both states where governor's races are too close to call.

In coming years, the shift of congressional power from smokestack states to Sunbelt states could put the GOP in its best position in decades to challenge 36 consecutive years of Democratic rule in the US House of Representatives.

The first serious GOP challenge could come as early as 1992, a presidential election year when Republican candidates for the House generally run stronger. -30-{et

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