The long and quixotic presidential primary season whimpers to a close Tuesday in California and five other states under circumstances unimaginable when it began: Two men who have persevered through dozens of clashes to lay claim to their parties' nominations are being shadowed by the ghost campaign of a Texas billionaire whose name has yet to appear on a single ballot.
Even if he loses California to its former governor, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is likely to have clinched the Democratic nomination before the polls close in the state, based on his showings elsewhere.
President Bush, who began his reelection campaign as a virtual shoo-in and then saw his popularity plummet to unprecedented depths, will formally dispense of the persistent challenge from conservative Republican Patrick J. Buchanan.
Yet even as they might wish to exult over the close of the hard-fought primaries, Bush and Clinton find themselves playing second fiddle to maverick Ross Perot. The Texas businessman, leading in hypothetical general-election matchups in California and elsewhere, has become a powerful and unexpected force in the presidential race, even without a formal presence on the ballot.
Grinning like a grizzled miner who has spotted a telltale glint, Perot signed off a six-state satellite pep rally on Friday with a pointed warning to Bush and Clinton. He ordered the band to strike up a tune: "California, Here I Come."
Poised to announce his independent presidential bid next month, Perot has skimmed off much of the pre-primary attention in California, in part because the anti-climactic contest has served only as a prelude to the coming battle in the general election.
"Is there really a campaign?" San Francisco political consultant Clinton Reilly mockingly asked the other day.
All told, there are 348 Democratic and 201 Republican presidential delegates at stake Tuesday in California. The President has already clinched the GOP nomination and, according to a survey by the Associated Press, Clinton has 2,050 delegates. That is just 95 shy of the 2,145 he needs for a first-ballot nomination.
The other five states holding presidential primaries on Tuesday--Ohio, New Jersey, Alabama, Montana and New Mexico--will dispense 352 delegates.
Across California, Tuesday's primary will be drawn upon a canvas of voter discontent and concern that in-state political observers believe to be unprecedented since 1978, when a rebellious electorate endorsed Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limitation.
So far, the anger and fear have not fueled predictions of a big turnout; Secretary of State March Fong Eu has forecast that less than half of the state's registered voters will cast ballots.
Voters appear to be struggling with profound worry, spawned by the persistent recession and enhanced by the fiery explosion of the Los Angeles riots. Interviews with supporters of Clinton, Bush and Perot throughout the state turned up strikingly similar expressions of the lack of faith in politics and politicians that has defined this political year.
"People are just fed up," said Jerry Bonnifield of Paso Robles, a 50-year-old disabled printer who plans to support Perot in November if "he halfway makes sense."
"Too much finger-pointing and not enough action," said William Smith of Fullerton, a 72-year-old retiree who supports Bush.
Even political veterans have looked on with dismay. Ed Zschau, the Republican who in 1986 came close to toppling Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston from the Senate, reflected last week that the presidential contest seems disconnected from voters' lives.
"I should be used to this," he said, "but (the campaign) just seems so shallow and so phony as opposed to what people are seeing. They are not looking for a showman, but one who understands the problems they see and has the courage of his convictions."
For all the surface somnolence of the primary, California will be the most important state in the nation come November, with its 54 electoral votes making up 20% of the 270 needed to win the presidency. And that, more than anything else, has sent candidates flocking to the Golden State in recent days.
On the Democratic side, Clinton has had to contend not only with Perot's apparent realignment of the fall race, but the troublesome presence of Brown as well. While a Los Angeles Times Poll taken two weeks ago showed Clinton with a 10 percentage-point lead among likely voters, a survey released last week by the Mason-Dixon polling organization showed the two men tied in California.
Mindful that a Brown victory--or even a tight race--could exacerbate concerns about his vulnerability this fall, Clinton scrapped plans to campaign in Ohio and New Jersey this weekend and stayed in California.
Clinton has teamed a general-election pitch to Republicans and independents with a simultaneous appeal to traditional Democratic voting blocs, including blacks and labor organizations.