THE charisma of California is gone," sighs David Chagall, a writer in Los Angeles. "It's become much too crowded. Opportunities have dried up. The economic and social fabric is tearing."
Mr. Chagall's lament for his beloved state echoes throughout California, from the emerald orange groves in the south to the majestic redwood forests in the north. Mark Baldassare, a pollster and professor in Republican-dominated Orange County, says:
"People are very disappointed. For years, Orange County outpaced the rest of the nation by 10 percent in consumer confidence. Now income growth has stopped, and they're in an angry mood."
California's low spirits, even in GOP strongholds, have sent political tremors all the way to the nation's capital. In the West Wing of the White House, where they plot political strategy, Bush aides know California could be decisive. The 1990 census gives the state a record 54 electoral votes, one-fifth the number needed to elect the next president.
For Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee, California suddenly presents a glittering opportunity. If he can snag the Golden State, he could achieve a West Coast sweep, from California to Washington State, and take a big step toward the Oval Office.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. President Bush, inheriting the mantle of California's own Ronald Reagan, made the state the western anchor of his 1988 Sunbelt strategy. Now the anchor is pulling loose.
While other parts of the United States have limped through the recession, California has fallen flat on its face. Unemployment, at 9.5 percent, is higher than in any other major state.
Political scientist Alan Heslop at Claremont McKenna College says California was struck by a litany of woes. Drought, earthquakes, riots, recession, bank failures, AIDS, and near-collapse of state finances have left it reeling.
"All of these ... disasters are hammering at California's sunny optimism," Dr. Heslop says. "That's the general backdrop to Bush's political problems."
Nor is the end in sight. Under Bush's defense plans, California is scheduled to lose $20 billion in military expenditures over the next 36 months.
"That's equal to 20,000 companies, each doing $1 million a year, a fairly sizable hit," Heslop observes.
Orange County, the heart of Reagan-Bush country, has felt the bite. Dr. Baldassare says the county was built on such pillars as aerospace, finance, insurance, and real estate. All four were clobbered by the recession.
Statewide, California has lost 230,000 nonfarm jobs in just the last 12 months. Construction dipped by 43,000 jobs, manufacturing by 87,000, wholesaling and retailing by 67,000, and finance, insurance, and real estate by 14,000.
Rep. David Dreier (R) of California blames much of the problem on ornerous state regulation of entrepreneurs. The "antibusiness" attitude at the state capitol is driving jobs out of California, Mr. Dreier says.
Immigration, especially illegal immigration, also gets some of the blame for California's troubles. A number of analysts worry that in bad times, illegal immigrants sap strength from the economy. Los Angeles County alone spends an estimated $750 million for welfare, health care, and other benefits for illegals, Dreier notes.
"There are rising levels of concern about immigration," Heslop acknowledges. "Even in the Mexican-American community, there are increasing questions about the policy of unrestrained illegal immigration."
Mr. Chagall also says the riots focused attention on the huge numbers of undocumented workers in southern California. He says immigration (75,000 Vietnamese in Orange County, for example) is creating a climate of "separateness" in southern California. "Latins, Asians, Anglos, African-Americans, all dividing up, fearing one another - lots of suspicion. It makes the climate for living very uncomfortable, and creates a demand for police protection," he says.
It is this uneasiness, this fear, which Chagall thinks could help Bush win in California with an anticrime platform.
Yet the most recent Field Poll shows Bush trailing Governor Clinton here by 62 percent to 28 percent. And despite Chagall's emphasis on the crime issue, Mark DiCamillo, Field's associate director, says the most important concern outside of the Los Angeles riot zone is the economy. And there Bush has problems.
A Field study released last week found Clinton leading Bush in California on 15 out of 18 major issues. By a margin averaging 30 percent, voters preferred Clinton's positions on women's issues, health care, helping the middle class, environment, race relations, unemployment, the US economy, and other key areas.
Bush held his own only in foreign affairs, taxes, and keeping US business competitive abroad.