THE drive to dismantle affirmative action, once speeding like a locomotive into the national spotlight, is in danger of derailment in the state where it all began.
The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a controversial ballot proposal that aims to end government programs giving minorities and women preferences in employment and school, needs more than 690,000 voter signatures to get on the November 1996 ballot. Organizers say that effort will cost about $1.2 million.
The campaign, though, has raised less than half that amount - most of which has been spent - and has collected only about 150,000 signatures. Without an infusion of cash in the next few weeks, organizers say, the future of the initiative is in jeopardy.
''Given the amount of publicity this thing had going for it, everyone thought it was a done deal,'' says CCRI chief Joe Gelman. ''Those who talked the talk are going to have to start walking the walk very quickly.''
Proponents face a Feb. 21 deadline and may actually need as many as 1 million signatures to account for those that are invalidated. To get them, organizers need cash for direct-mail costs, paying staff, and printing flyers and brochures. ''It costs a lot of money,'' Mr. Gelman adds.
Gelman has been accused by some of crying wolf to speed the collection of money. Critics say the coffers are close to empty because Gelman spent early funds ill-advisedly on a professional signature-gathering firm when volunteers could have done the job. But observers close to the campaign say the financial difficulties are real and so dire that offices could close in two weeks.
The initiative seeks to bar local and state governments from using race, sex, or ethnic origin in hiring, contracting, and college admissions. After the proposal was first announced last spring, several other states drafted similar resolutions, and President Clinton and some Congress members called for affirmative-action overhauls at the federal level.
Those efforts could also lose support if the California initiative fails to get off the ground. ''A failure for CCRI here will be a major setback for initiatives in other states and bills at the federal level,'' says Tom Lowe, a political analyst at California's Claremont Institute who once worked for the campaign.
The reason for the faltering, Mr. Lowe says, is that organizers are finding big benefactors hesitant to back the initiative. ''A lot of potential donors don't want the controversy associated with their names,'' he says.
In California, statewide polls show 58 percent of voters support the proposal. And Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has strongly backed the measure.
''Unfortunately, it's a wedge issue,'' says Jorge Amselle, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. ''Businesses haven't been as supportive as they could because they don't want protests in front of their corporate headquarters,'' he says.
And women and minority groups have joined forces to threaten the initiative. ''People began wising up when they heard Colin Powell say he had been helped strongly by affirmative action,'' says Fred Jordan, president of the California Business Council of Equal Opportunity, a coalition of minority groups.
Mark DiCamillo, one of California's leading pollsters, says that despite its problems, CCRI has an unprecedented profile for an initiative that has not yet been formally approved for the ballot: 76 percent of Californians are aware of the measure.
Late last month, House Speaker Newt Gingrich did jump into the vacuum of support by crafting a letter endorsing CCRI. Gelman says the letter has helped, but there is a long way to go. A major part of the problem has been the state GOP, which has not made good on its pledge to contribute ''whatever resources prove to be necessary, financial or otherwise.''