California Preview of Nation's Political Year

Tuesday's primary vote may reshape role of money in politics.

Just as New Hampshire can provide a vague road map to a presidential race, California's June 2 primary will be the largest early test of voters' mood for this fall's congressional and state elections. It could also ignite a brush fire or two likely to spread beyond the state's borders.

But no message from California will be stronger than the power - and possibly limits - of money in American politics at the close of the 20th century.

Right now, that message would appear to focus on the limits.

Airline tycoon Al Checchi, who has never held elective office at any level, has ponied up $30 million of his own personal fortune to win the keys to the governor's office. It's a record expenditure by a non-presidential candidate. Yet a Field poll out yesterday shows him in third place, suggesting "you can't buy an election, even in this day and age" without doing a lot of other things right, says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Checchi's campaign has bet on "outsider appeal," a potent political force in the early 1990s that may have run out of steam amid a buoyant economy and an upbeat electorate. The Field poll shows Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a career politician, with a strong lead.

Money and the political process are also highlighted in a California ballot initiative with potentially as much national impact as the race for governor. It would prohibit organized labor from using members' dues for political expenditures without their approval each year.

Boosters call it a key measure of campaign-finance reform. Opponents consider it a piecemeal approach that would weaken labor and help corporations.

The issue already has national overtones. President Clinton has campaigned against the measure, and Republicans and some conservative groups have been pushing comparable legislation elsewhere. Signature gathering is under way to put it on the ballot in Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.

Though once comfortably ahead in the polls, the labor initiative is now closely contested.

Big spenders multiply

Polls in the governor's race, however, aren't so close. Checchi's fellow big-spender, Rep. Jane Harman of southern California, jumped into the race late and, with the help of family wealth, has spent $14 million. She's trailing Davis by 13 points and is in a dead heat with Checchi. Davis has spent $7 million.

Even Attorney General Dan Lungren, who has no serious opposition for the GOP nomination, has spent close to $5 million.

Low name recognition and deep pockets propelled the hefty spending by Checchi and Ms. Harman. But they're also typical of a trend in US politics to more heavily self-financed candidacies. For instance, the number of US Senate candidates who have spent more than $1 million of their own funds has grown from one in 1988 to 14 in 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

'Blanket' primary

Also propelling the California spending binge is a new voting system designed to give voters freer choice - something supporters hope will boost turnout. California's new "blanket" primary, already in place on a smaller scale in Alaska, Louisiana, and Washington, permits voters to vote for any candidate in any race, regardless of party affiliation.

No one is quite sure how it will work. Will voters of one party cross over and cause mischief in the other party? Or will they line up behind their favorite candidate and stay there for the general election?

Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California, who helped win voter approval of the blanket primary in 1996, doubts mischief-making. "It's just very hard to coordinate a mischief strategy without undermining your own true candidate," he says. Campbell expects the new voting system will increase turnout, giving voters who don't state their party affiliation (about 12 percent in California) the ability to participate.

Two other issues on the ballot here could send ripples nationally, say analysts.

* One would require schools to spend no more than 5 percent of their funds on administration.

* The other would end the state's troubled bilingual-education program. Children with limited English would get only one year of "sheltered" English study before moving into regular classes.

Most analysts don't expect a particularly high turnout June 2, but the Hispanic vote will be of interest. It's long been axiomatic that Hispanics' rising numbers could swell their political clout.

But so far turnout has been low. In California, for instance, Hispanics make up about 26 percent of the voting-age population but only 10 percent of votes cast.

The bilingual initiative hasn't been as racially polarizing as some feared, largely because most Hispanics favor the plan.

Still, opposition has been growing, and the emotional content of the issue could well heighten Hispanic turnout.

Fighting against high voter turnout is a happy electorate. Satisfaction tends to keep voters at home and favor incumbents.

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