California Race: a Test for Clinton

Some Democrats are not encouraging president's support

WHILE many Democratic candidates are quietly telling the president they don't want his help on the stump this fall, California is seeing more visits from administration officials than is the White House barber.

This weekend, over salmon and vegetables, President Clinton will host a fund-raiser for gubernatoral hopeful Kathleen Brown (D) at 20th Century Fox studios here.

Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton helped raise $500,000 for Ms. Brown, the state treasurer, in San Francisco. Vice President Al Gore Jr. will be campaigning for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) next week, and then it will likely be the president's turn again, sometime between now and Nov. 8. Daughter Chelsea's plans aren't known.

All of which raises a question: Do the visits help or hurt?

Here's what Dan Schnur, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson (R), Ms. Brown's opponent, has to say: ``I'd be willing to send him [the president] upgrade airline certificates to come out.'' (Cajun candidate cuts Clinton connection, Page 5)

That comment, of course, reflects more than a little opposition bravado, but it also underscores the difficulties facing the White House as it tries to help Democrats in mid-term elections in the face of slumping presidential poll numbers.

White House officials have been hearing from various Democrats across the country, sometimes unsubtly, that they would prefer the president not to come calling just now. Apparently sensitive to those concerns, administration officials have indicated they will be selective about where Mr. Clinton goes and what he does.

He is expected to make use of his prodigious fund-raising skills and to enunciate broad, forward-look themes in the areas that he visits. California will offer a test.

The state remains at the top of the Democratic must-win list in Washington. The national Democratic Party, for instance, is expected to pump as much as $1 million into voter registration and other efforts in California - the most ever in one state in a midterm election year.

Feinstein election is key

The party's concerns are understandable. Holding onto the seat held by Ms. Feinstein, who faces a tough reelection fight with Rep. Michael Huffington (R), will be critical to the Democrats maintaining control of the US Senate, not to mention symbolic of other things: Because Feinstein presents the kind of moderate, ``New Democrat'' image on many issues that Clinton does, her reelection effort may yield clues on how he will do here in 1996.

``If Feinstein loses, it is going to be a major setback for the White House,'' says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

Most polls give Feinstein a modest edge in the race, but with Mr. Huffington's deep pockets - he has spent more than $10 million of his own money so far - no one is making any Deweyesque predictions.

More problematic perhaps for the Democrats is the Brown-Wilson matchup, which will also be central to Clinton hopes of carrying California, and thus the country, in 1996. A Los Angeles Times poll out this week showed Wilson holding a nine-point edge over the challenger among voters likely to cast ballots and a two-point lead among all registered voters - a dramatic turnaround from this spring.

Here again, though, the Wilson camp can't break out the pompoms yet. Though the polls did show the governor beating Brown on the issues of crime, immigration, and, surprisingly, the economy, Wilson's emergence has more to do with Brown's failure to stir enthusiasm than any magnetism the governor holds.

Thus if Brown were to give people a compelling reason to vote for her, she could still win. Moreover, another recent survey, this one by University of California at Irvine pollster Mark Baldassare, showed Wilson holding a 53-to-31 percent advantage over Brown in Orange County - not the two-to-one margin a Republican is expected to have in the GOP stronghold in order to carry the state.

Enter into the dynamic Clinton and other campaign surrogates. The fund-raiser here Sunday is expected to net Brown about $1 million. Analysts note that such appearances also help galvanize party activists.

Even with the president's low standing in the polls, Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, says Clinton still draws fewer guffaws than Congress and ``his agenda is not unpopular.''

Candidate Brown welcomes the White House help. She emphasizes the benefits California could reap from having a Democrat in Sacramento and Washington.

``We've talked frequently about how California would do well to have a partnership with the White House,'' says Brown spokesman John Whitehurst.

GOP: Go for it

If the Democrats want to play up their link with Clinton, that's fine with the GOP. They believe just mentioning the president's name is as good as offering voters a chicken in every pot.

``When you look around the country at how well Republicans are doing, it has as its foundation this anti-Clinton sentiment,'' says Sal Russo, a California-based GOP strategist. ``I think it is bad news for the Democrats when Bill Clinton shows up and reminds voters that this Democrat is part of the team.''

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