THE Golden State and its 54 electoral votes are Gov. Bill Clinton's to lose.
The Arkansas governor is doing extremely well in a state that is worse off economically than the rest of the country. He has jumped out to a 21-point lead in one major poll here - compared with an average lead of 15 points in the rest of the country.
"Bill Clinton's greatest strength is that he is not George Bush, and George Bush's greatest weakness is the economy," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Both are highlighted in a state losing jobs by the hundreds of thousands and paying its bills with IOUs."
"People are concerned that the tenets of the California dream - recession-proof industry and great education - are disappearing," said Jay Ziegler, Governor Clinton's Los Angeles press secretary, as the candidate toured job-training facilities in Watts yesterday on the second day of a two-day California swing. "That bodes well for our message."
On Tuesday, Clinton landed in San Jose, Calif., to outline his plan to allow students, regardless of income, to attend a state university or trade school. On Wednesday, he toured South-Central Los Angeles, which was devastated by riots in May, and laid out details of plans "to invest in people" by expanding job-training programs.
He was greeted by news of the latest Los Angeles Times Poll, which shows his lead over President Bush at 57 percent to 36 percent, with 5 percent undecided. Adding in Ross Perot, who will be on the November ballot, resulted in Clinton receiving 49 percent, Bush 28 percent, Perot 17 percent, and undecided 5 percent.
A similar statewide survey in May put Clinton ahead of Mr. Bush by only 2 percentage points in a two-way race.
"We are taking nothing for granted," Mr. Ziegler says. But he adds that in Clinton's nationwide strategy, California is a central building block. Ziegler says California has had more visits by Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore Jr., than any other state - and that trend will continue. The days of Republicans "winning California in their sleep" are over, he predicts.
THE downside of so many visits, political pundits say, is that voters get to examine more closely their alternative to Bush.
"He still has a tendency to slip into his `slick Willie' persona," notes Del Ali, a Washington-based pollster. "It's a leftover from his lawyer days that doesn't play well with voters. He's got to learn to be more neighborly."
"California may still be winnable by Bush," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. He notes that polls during this election season have been highly volatile, with as much as 10-point leads evaporating in a week. "No doubt this is terrible news for him [Bush], but no one should be taking this lead for granted by November," Professor Pitney says.
Bush supporters are reminding voters that Gov. Michael Dukakis led by 17 points across the United States and by 10 points in California after the 1988 Democratic Convention. But Mr. Dukakis lost the election, and lost California by 3 percentage points.
"Clinton would really have to screw up to lose California now," counters Mr. Ali, vice president of Washington-based Political Media/Research. His polling data from Sept. 3-7 show Clinton's lead at 10 points, 48 percent to 38 percent.
One of Clinton's assets in California is the environmentalist record of Senator Gore, who wrote the best-selling book "Earth in the Balance."
"Bush has been calling Gore an environmental radical, which is a dumb idea in California," says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "There's a lot more people interested in protecting the forests than the jobs of those that work there."
But Clinton's biggest advantage in California is the latest unemployment figures, which are more than 2 percent higher than the national average. The last American carmaker in southern California, General Motors, pulled out two weeks ago. And Hughes Aircraft Company announced last week it would move missile-building operations to Arizona, costing another 4,500 defense-industry jobs.
Asked whether things in California are "generally going in the right direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track," 85 percent of the respondents in the Times poll answered "wrong track."
Political pundits say if Clinton can keep the campaign focused on the economy, instead of getting sidetracked into questions about his draft record or his character, then he has an excellent chance of winning California.
"I don't know if Clinton can do it or not," says Barbara Van Orden, a Hollywood producer who campaigned for Dukakis in 1988. "But anything is better than Bush. I'm willing to try anything to get this country productive again."