CALIFORNIA campaign forays this week by President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III added to the rumors of a heightened role for Mr. Baker in the president's reelection efforts. But most voters eyes and ears were tuned 3,000 miles away to Democratic Party attempts to get its act together in Madison Square Garden.
By most accounts here - Republican, Democrat, and independent alike - the Democratic National Convention in Manhattan has projected at least the appearance of party unity from coast to coast. The three-way presidential horse race is neck and neck, pollsters say. But the televised rapprochement of the Democrats' once-combatant leaders has the nation's largest electoral state suddenly feeling a Clinton/Gore ticket might actually win the White House.
"It's just a gut reaction that things are moving in the right direction," says Steve Heilpern, a lifelong Democrat who campaigned heavily across California for Michael Dukakis in 1988. "Perception has everything to do with a major morale boost."
That boost is creating consternation for Republicans and Ross Perot supporters who are agitating for equally definitive moves by their candidates.
In the meantime, this year's heightened voter discontent with politics is exacerbated here, where convention proceedings are broadcast at early-dinner hours (4:30-6:30 Pacific time) or merely excerpted in three-hour-delayed newscasts.
But after the fiery-but-narrow oratory of Jesse Jackson, and before last night's sweeping acceptance remarks by Bill Clinton, most say the nominating speech of Mario Cuomo is the one that has best helped Democrats turn the corner.
"It pushed all the right buttons," says a homemaker from Sherman Oaks, a registered Democrat who has voted both independent and Republican in previous presidential elections.
"He talked about everything that has affected me in the last four years - from homeless, to savings-and-loan scams, to growing unemployment and city problems. I might even vote Democrat this time around."
Interviews with voters of both parties in California reveal that a well-known Ronald Reagan query may come back to haunt his successor in November: "Are you better or worse off than you were four years ago?" That and other observations were presented in Monitor conversations with California residents after Wednesday night's Cuomo speech. Excerpts follow:
"I thought it was one of the best political speeches I ever heard," says Barbara Van Orden, a producer of film and video projects in Hollywood. "He articulated issues well without being small-minded or nasty like politicians can be. Coming from someone who many think could've lead the ticket, it was definitely the boost that Clinton needed."
Steve Winston (not his real name), an actor and part-time builder from Encino supports Mr. Perot, concedes the smoothness and generosity of Cuomo's speech. But he takes it to task for vagueness. "He [Cuomo] talks in great sweeps and generalizations without being specific," says Mr. Winston, who is angry that the press has skewered billionaire Perot for his lack of platform particulars. "When he talks about `the politics of inclusion' I wondered about the `exclusion' of Jerry Brown. He said Clinton wants to pull people off welfare and unemployment, but he didn't say how. He talked about how Al Gore was going to save the environment but didn't say how."
Erin Miller, a freelance writer in Glendale, appreciates the way Cuomo emphasized Clinton's hard-and-humble childhood in Hope, Ark.
"I've heard Clinton is uncomfortable bringing up the hardship of his youth, but he could make political hay if he did," says Ms. Miller.
She adds that Cuomo "really hit home that Bush & Co. have just not gotten the message that marginal shifts in direction just aren't going to cut it."
Sarkis Devirian, a retired Air Force veteran from Redlands, says he was struck by the "honesty" of Cuomo in leveling with voters and delegates. "He was able to underline the homeless problem, and health care, cities, and the rest in ways that really make you take a look at our country," says Mr. Devirian. "It seems clear that if we don't do something, we are going to go down the tubes."
Mary Johnson, a 90-year-old retiree in Merced, says that "Cuomo defined the party as the one with heart and soul."
A lifelong Democrat, Ms. Johnson says the Cuomo speech is the most stirring she has ever heard. "It was powerful and urgent," she says. "And I liked when he said Democrats are the party which is too good to make war its most successful enterprise."
Herbert Villa Lobos, a three-year immigrant from El Salvador who has yet to participate in American politics, says he was impressed with "the depth and vision of caring" expressed by Cuomo. "You can tell this is the party that cares more about conditions of life and working people - especially Hispanics and blacks," says Mr. Villa Lobos. "That is something that sends a message not just to Americans but to the whole world."