The nation's first voter test of whether to roll back decades of affirmative action laws - a measure that held a double-digit lead just three weeks ago - has moved into a statistical dead heat in the final days before the Tuesday election.
Known as the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) or Proposition 209, the ballot measure now leads with only a 5 percent margin in a Field poll taken last weekend. Anti-209 forces have been bolstered by a last-minute ad campaign featuring former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Pro-209 forces have lost momentum amid legal pressure to remove clips of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech from ads supporting the measure.
"All the free media generated by the controversy over these tactics has given us more publicity than we could ever buy," says Read Scott-Martin, communications director for the Campaign to Defeat 209.
Aiming to end government programs that give minorities and women preferences in employment and schooling, the initiative is being watched as a bellwether on a subject that has been an ethical struggle for courts, Congress, and state legislatures nationwide.
"CCRI has forced a coast-to-coast reappraisal of how the country should deal with the vital national premise of fairness in the workplace," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Ballot initiatives similar to CCRI are being readied in other states, while President Clinton and Congress have looked at overhauls at the federal level.
With the clock ticking, anti-209 forces opened a $1 million TV ad blitz Tuesday, just after presidential candidate Bob Dole gave an impassioned stand for the measure. The video features a burning cross with an inset of a white-robed Mr. Duke, who has traveled to California to speak in favor of Prop. 209.
Opponents say the measure is a thinly veiled attempt to bolster Republicans in statewide races while thwarting gains of women and minorities. "Californians deserve the true facts, the face of Prop. 209 ... is David Duke," says Patricia Ewing of the anti-209 committee.
Proponents are outraged by the ads. CCRI director Ward Connerly, a black University of California Regent, called them "a despicable reversion to the discredited tactics of guilt by association. They have labeled as racists the majority of Californians who support 209."
If passed, the initiative would amend the state Constitution to read: "Neither the state of California nor any of its political subdivisions shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state's system of public employment, public education or public contracting."
Such language has been hotly debated. "They have tried to deceive the public by using the words of civil rights, but the effect is to end all affirmative action in California," says Mr. Scott-Martin.
Bolstered by women's groups and star-studded fund-raisers, anti-209 forces have raised significant funds while proponents have struggled to get the issue to ballot and make up for a lack of open corporate support.
Despite the last-minute poll surge, Mark Di Camillo, director of the Field Poll, predicts CCRI will still pass by a slim margin. Similar, last-minute poll shifts occurred in 1994 with a controversial anti-immigration initiative, Prop. 187. But the measure went on to pass by a wider margin than poll results predicted.
"Like 187, CCRI is the kind of issue people tend to support in the privacy of the voting booth, but not so openly in front of pollsters," says Mr. Di Camillo.