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Prop. 187 Backers Counting on Message, Not Strategy

October 30, 1994|GEBE MARTINEZ and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GARDEN GROVE — For months, the California ballot measure known as Proposition 187--which has focused attention nationwide on the divisive issue of illegal immigration--enjoyed runaway support in spite of an official campaign that is ill-financed, loosely organized and at times seemingly adrift.

Pro-187 forces, unable to hire a big-name consultant or mount an effective advertising effort, instead relied on Gov. Pete Wilson and others to carry their message on the airwaves.

In the critical days before the election, the movement's most colorful advocate is touring South Africa and its enigmatic, secretive chairman is so uncomfortable with the press that he flees from some journalists, refuses to talk to others and barely conceals his disdain for most of the rest. Initiative proponents are often unavailable for public forums or stay away to avoid hostile opponents.

In the face of such shortcomings, however, proponents have banked on The Message: the widely held perception that an "invasion" of illegal immigrants is causing economic hardship and eroding the lifestyles of U.S. citizens and authorized immigrants.

This no-strategy strategy seemed destined to produce an extraordinary electoral success--until now. Abruptly the scenario anti-187 activists have long predicted, that voter approval would fall as Election Day nears, appears to be coming to pass.

The latest Los Angeles Times Poll shows that support for the initiative has dropped dramatically--from a comfortable 26-point cushion earlier this month to a 10-point margin last week. The Field Poll records a parallel decline in approval rates for Proposition 187, which would bar illegal immigrants from receiving public school education and any of the limited publicly funded non-emergency health care programs they now qualify for, including immunizations and prenatal care.

In another campaign, experts say, such a surge in opposition might prompt a brisk counter-response by advocates. A barrage of commercials would serve to reinforce the all-important central message, quell growing doubts and reassure the elderly and other core backers.

"Right now I would think they would need to recap what's going on, assess the damages, and see what direction they want to take the campaign," said Donna Lucas, a Sacramento-based political consultant. "They need to be going into the last two weeks with a proactive strategy."

But Ron S. Prince, the Tustin accountant who is chairman of the pro-187 forces, almost bristles at the suggestion of a tactical rethinking, stressing the "grass-roots" origins of an initiative placed on the ballot with more than 600,000 signatures.

"We're just going to keep on doing what we're doing, and then we'll all wait and see on Election Day how it works," Prince said in his characteristically hushed voice after a public meeting of pro-187 forces in a Garden Grove bank building last week. "We're down so close to the election that there really isn't a lot of time to worry."

In reality, the pro-187 campaign and its allies are switching gears, calling in volunteers, accelerating fund-raising efforts and hitting the airwaves. "For us to let up and coast to a victory is something we really don't know how to do," said Prince, who leaped from obscurity to become a kind of Howard Jarvis of the contentious immigration debate.

Whether the slippage now evident in the polls will continue remains to be seen. Though a landslide now seems unlikely, the measure still appears destined for passage.

"I'd rather be in our shoes than in our opponents' shoes," said Alan C. Nelson, former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner who is a co-author of the measure.

Whatever happens on Nov. 8, proponents have indisputably scored a tremendous success. Their ill-funded movement, born in suburban living rooms throughout California, has helped shift the terms of the nation's great debate on immigration, possibly for a generation or longer. And it has put pressure on the Clinton Administration to take action, including bolstering enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We've already won," said Robert R. Kiley, the Yorba Linda-based consultant who is managing the campaign. "After this passes in November, it's going from state to state to state."

Despite backers' clear accomplishments and still-comfortable lead in the polls, voter surveys show that opponents' aggressive campaign tactics have managed to engender the kernel of doubt essential for any "No" campaign.

"Generally speaking, if you give someone a reason to vote 'no' on something they'll do it," said Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist who usually works with Republicans.

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