ALTHOUGH one candidate will have the home advantage and the other seems to have the nomination wrapped up, neither Jerry Brown nor Bill Clinton can be sanguine about his prospects in the big California primary June 2.
Fickleness rules in presidential politics here.
For Arkansas Governor Clinton, the presumptive nominee, that will mean overcoming a considerable history of Golden State Democrats balking at the front-runner on the last major primary day before the convention.
That impulse could be even more pronounced this year if new character questions were to surface and Mr. Brown were able to exploit concerns about the Arkansas governor's electability in a state where voters are already restive.
On the other hand, Brown's mixed record as governor and changes on issues over the years are well known here, which gives him a substantial number of detractors. Strong Brown candidacy
"I think Bill Clinton is a very strong candidate for California," says John Emerson, deputy Los Angeles city attorney and a Democratic Party activist. "But Brown will run strongly, too. He has never lost a Democratic primary here."
The election will be important for both. Mr. Clinton may need the bulk of California's 348 delegates, the nation's largest pool, to push him over the top for the nomination.
Perhaps more important, the primary will give him an opportunity to establish a campaign organization and get better known in a state that Democrats generally agree they must carry in November to win the White House.
A good showing by Brown, though, would give him more leverage in impressing his ideas on the party and add to a network of supporters that could form the framework of a future political movement.
"Jerry is no longer running a campaign, but a cause," says Joe Scott, who edits a political newsletter here. "He is basically running against his own party. His whole goal is to position himself for survival after mid-July [and the party convention]."
How either candidate fares will depend in part on the politics of the moment. If Clinton is able to overcome doubts about his trustworthiness in the next few weeks and win big in Pennsylvania, the rally-round-the-nominee momentum that is already building for him could carry over into California.
The state does, however, have a history of contrarianism, and no one is better positioned to exploit it than Jerry Brown, the native son who has fashioned himself as a vessel of protest.
Brown won the California Democratic primary in 1976. Four years later, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy beat Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president in the California primary. In 1984, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart bested Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee.
Brown has a base of zealous supporters who will follow him to the metaphysical end, and is familiar with the issues in the state. Still, millions of people have moved here or come of age since he was governor, and those who are familiar with his record have a checkered view of it.
Clinton, moreover, can portray himself as the outsider in California and may find receptivity to his economic program in a state where employment is the dominant issue. Agent of change role
"Everywhere else, Brown has made himself the agent of change," says John Whitehurst, a Democratic strategist in San Francisco. "That argument becomes a little less real here. Clinton could come in and steal the message."
Mr. Whitehurst and several other strategists and analysts interviewed give Clinton the edge in the race.
A recent survey by the California Poll showed Brown and Clinton running even. Clinton was favored by men, college graduates, and conservative Democrats, while Brown had more support among young voters, women, and minorities.
The candidates will have to appeal to diverse interests and regions. The San Francisco area, where Brown is running strong, is the most liberal and progressive, while Orange and San Diego Counties and the ex-urban counties of San Bernardino and Riverside east of here should be fertile ground for moderate and conservative Clinton supporters.
Environmentalism runs deep along the coast but finds few adherents in the Central Valley, the state's breadbasket. Besides the economy, immigration, education, and trade are important because of the state's ethnic mix and ties to the Pacific Rim. Candidates getting advice
To appeal to all these ZIP codes, the candidates are getting plenty of advice. Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly, says Clinton can't beat Jerry Brown in the state and shouldn't waste a lot of time and resources trying. He thinks the Arkansas governor should be "presidential" and focus on beating President Bush in the fall.
Party leaders disagree and urge a vigorous effort.
Brown suggested recently he would stress issues in the weeks ahead and support unconditionally whoever the nominee is.
But there have been different signals from the candidate since then, and no one is sure he will stump quietly given that California will be his last hurrah.