Democrats' Half-Hearted Grip on Coattails

As Clinton heads to California, big races there underscore Democrats' dilemma.

In his innumerable trips to California, President Clinton has raised millions for Democrats, cemented relations with high-tech impresarios and movie stars, and used the state as a golden backdrop for policy initiatives.

Now, as the Clinton motorcade travels once again through California cities over the next several days, the state will serve a different role: America's largest voting laboratory.

Many experts see Mr. Clinton's trip here as an early indicator for how the sex scandal that engulfs the presidency will play out in the November elections. In two dead-heat races - for governor and US senator - the Democratic candidates must find ways to welcome the president and tap his fund-raising prowess, without opening themselves to fresh attacks on the issue of character.

"Bill Clinton has become an intensely polarizing figure," says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. More so than any election since Watergate, he says, that factor could greatly boost or diminish both Democrat and Republican morale. "California will be a big test of how what is going on in Washington will play out in America."

The governor's race, in particular, carries high stakes. Whoever holds that office will rule over redistricting after the 2000 census - and a Democrat may be able to redraw congressional districts in a way that would eventually send many more party colleagues to the House of Representatives.

California already has 52 House seats - the most of any state - and is expected to pick up one or two more.

"How these congressional districts are redrawn in 2002 could have more impact on the House than anything else Bill Clinton ever does," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and publisher of statistics tracing congressional and state legislative races. "Whatever this scandal costs the Democrats elsewhere, if they can get [a Democratic governor] elected here, they can pick up 10 Democratic seats just by redrawing the [district] lines alone."

The race between Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D) and state Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) is close, if lackluster. Marked by an absence of hot-button issues that have driven recent California elections, this campaign could hang on voter turnout - a factor that could hurt Democrats if voters are feeling disillusioned with Clinton.

Because of this, the Clinton visit that begins today is sending tremors through both campaign camps. Among registered voters, Democrat Davis is ahead of Republican Lungren 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a Sept. 20 Los Angeles Times poll. But among people most likely to vote, the race is even, 46 to 46. Moreover, Mr. Lungren has appeared to make gains in recent weeks after a statewide TV-ad blitz on the issue of character as "doing what's right when no one is looking."

A quiet welcome wagon

In the face of such ads, Mr. Davis is left figuring out how to welcome Clinton largess without appearing to embrace the president too closely. Despite his current problems, the president is still the biggest money-raiser for the Democrats, raising $3.5 million for Davis in a single event in August. For his part, Davis so far has condemned Clinton's conduct but lauded the president's record for California.

"The Clinton visit is going to be very tricky for Gray Davis," says Republican consultant Matt Klink. While governors of other states have refused to be seen with Clinton, he says, "no Democrat in California can afford to ignore or bash him. The state has prospered under him, and for Gray Davis to distance himself now would be disingenuous."

A stretch?

But there may be a problem for Lungren in trying to tie Clinton's character to Davis's and make it stick. For now, the Republican nominee is trying to remind voters of Davis's role 20 years ago as chief of staff to liberal Gov. Jerry Brown. Davis's camp has responded with a laundry list of Lungren "character" transgressions dating back to Lungren's time in Congress.

"Trying to link Clinton's character to Davis's - and a White House crisis to a California gubernatorial campaign - seems a very big stretch," says George Skelton, chief statehouse writer for the Los Angeles Times.

But the Clinton connection is definitely a factor in the US Senate race, where incumbent Barbara Boxer (D) is fighting to keep her seat. Her Republican opponent, state treasurer Matt Fong, has spotlighted her high-profile role in ousting Sen. Bob Packwood (R) over sexual-harassment issues while remaining silent, at least initially, about Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He now leads Senator Boxer by an 8-point margin among registered voters, according to one poll. Respondents said their biggest reason for choosing Mr. Fong is that "he is not Boxer."

"Boxer's negatives have everything to do with the Clinton situation," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in California. Compounding her predicament is that Clinton is family. Boxer's daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother.

Such a focus on personality and character is a departure from three decades of tradition in California politics, says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of that has to do with the fact that California's economy is booming and crime is down.

"We don't usually get defined by national issues," he says. "Usually we are the state defining issues for others."

Too much static from Washington

Part of that change also has to do with the sheer din of Clinton coverage. "Both candidates have been trying to talk about issues here," says Bob Brown, chief spokesman for Lungren. "It has been almost impossible to permeate what is being talked about in Washington."

Observers here say the Clinton impact is still too fluid to call. If it proves to be negligible, the state delegation's Democratic edge in the House is expected to shift by only one seat, perhaps dropping to 28 Democrats to 24 Republicans. But if voters stay away from the polls in November, a drop which happened after Watergate, the Democrats might lose more seats.

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