Is Clinton Courtship of California Over?

With Chelsea now at Stanford, Golden State hopes for more visits - and more attention.

Today President Clinton delivers daughter Chelsea to one of the Golden State's golden campuses: Stanford University.

But behind the show of family hugs and photo ops, a more substantive debate rages over whether or not the president has failed to deliver something else to the nation's largest state: the promises of his first term and of Election '96.

Whether California voters feel warm or cool toward the Clinton presidency has ramifications beyond the president's own legacy. At stake is which way the state will tilt in the 2000 election - especially now that Gov. Pete Wilson (R) may mount a favorite-son bid for the White House and that Democratic heir apparent Al Gore is mired in a campaign-finance probe.

"Clinton has a great interest in leaving a legacy for whichever Democrat follows him in a presidential bid," says Tim Ransdell, director of the California Institute, a bipartisan think tank. "He also cares deeply about having a Democratic Senate and Congress. For those reasons, you can bet he will make the most of any of his forays into California" to visit Chelsea.

After courting California more than any national officeseeker in modern history, Mr. Clinton transferred California presidential politics - with its biggest-in-the-nation electoral prize - into the Democratic column. Californians went for Clinton over incumbent President Bush in 1992 and over Bob Dole in 1996.

Whither Clinton?

But Clinton has not been seen so often in California since Election Day. Moreover, the loss of five Californians in the Clinton Cabinet - Leon Panetta, William Perry, Mickey Cantor, Warren Christopher, and Ron Brown - has led many pundits and politicos to surmise that California has lost the president's ear.

"Movers and shakers in California want to know what this presidential administration is doing for their state," says Joe Cerrell, a leading Democratic consultant. "The operative question is, 'Was this just a brief love affair because it was an election year, or is the love affair continuing?' "

As state leaders offer assessments of how well Clinton has kept his promises, the debate not surprisingly falls along party lines.

"Bill Clinton has turned out to be the big talker and regretfully not the great deliverer [of promises]," says Sean Walsh, deputy chief of staff to Governor Wilson. "He shoveled the prospect of high-profile pork to the state, but when it came time to deliver the big-ticket items, he went AWOL."

Topping the list of Republican beefs against Clinton is federal immigration policy. The governor maintains that US failure to control its borders puts an undue burden on California, which shoulders the $3.5 billion costs of dealing with illegal immigrants.

"During the election he said, 'I feel your pain,' " says Mr. Walsh, "but we are still getting the bill. The meager money he brings the state is far outweighed by the mandates he continues to stick the state with."

Other failed promises: a pledge not to close McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento; a pledge not to move forward on a minimum-wage exemption that would complicate the state's mammoth welfare overhaul; and a recent pledge of millions in federal help on a cleanup of Lake Tahoe.

"He stood up in San Diego and said California would not bear the brunt of base closings," adds H.D. Palmer, assistant director of the state finance department. "Then the state which employs 15 percent of the base employees gets socked with 65 percent of the layoffs."

But several others say Clinton has delivered on his pledges.

On the plus side of Clinton's ledger are more than $10 billion in federal disaster-aid money that came to Los Angeles in the wake of the area's 1994 earthquake. Billions of dollars have also been forthcoming in funding for San Francisco's rapid transit system (BART).

"[Clinton] has personally seen to it that the White House will fund our crucial BART-to-the-airport project," says J.T. Johnston, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

Daughter Chelsea's connection to Stanford University in the South Bay will work in the Golden State's interest, says Mr. Johnston, because a Clinton entourage will probably show its face more often in the state, and therefore will be more accessible.

The administration has also helped form a $1 billion plus Community Development Bank to aid in the reconstruction of post-riot L.A. "The mayor has had an excellent long-term relationship with the Clinton administration," says Robin Kramer, chief of staff for Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R). "We are infrastructure needy, and the White House has shown both flexibility and support."

'He still cares'

Karen Skelton, Clinton's deputy director of political affairs, says the president's commitment to California remains strong. She cites his monthly trips to the state, as well as three key nominations to various federal posts: Los Angeles's Bill Lee to be assistant attorney general for civil rights; former Police Commission president Ray Fisher to be the No. 3 post at the Justice Department; and Berkeley's Janet Yellen to be chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers.

Republicans counter that Clinton's claims to financial aid to California are just public-relations spins taking credit - as in the case of disaster aid - for tax money already due the state.

But if politicians and pundits are playing out a public-relations war behind the scenes, the California public for the most part seems not to notice. The latest California Poll shows Clinton with a 56 percent approval rating and 36 percent disapproval among all adults.

"Those are quite good numbers," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Poll. "Especially when the economy is good, the public pays less attention to the inside baseball of politics."

A major contention is over who gets credit for California's recovery of more than 1.3 million jobs since the trough of the state's recession, says Mr. DiCamillo. "When the economy does well, all incumbents look good. That includes both Wilson and Clinton."

For his part, Wilson is basking in higher approval ratings, even if not as high as Clinton's. Riding the wave of a California economy that is producing tax surpluses, Wilson's ratings are the highest since he became governor, according to at least one poll.

Because of this, Clinton cannot write off the Golden State, observers say. In this sense, whether or not his visits to Chelsea include substantive policy discussions with state leaders is beside the point, they say. His visits will give the appearance of White House concern for California.

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