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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Clinton Visit May Cut Both Ways for Party

November 03, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Here comes President Clinton. Hail to the Chief. Banners, bunting, balloons, squeals and barricaded streets. Wide eyes and glowing faces. Glowering Clint Eastwood look-alikes mumbling into their sleeves. God Bless the U.S.A.

It's exciting if you're there, excruciating if your freeway on-ramp is blocked. It makes for good TV film. But is it good politics?

Not always, but Clinton's two-day visit to California on the final weekend before the election should provide a slight lift for the state Democratic ticket and also, perhaps, for the battle against Proposition 187.

Clinton is more popular in California--or less unpopular --than he is in the nation as a whole. And his image here has been improving.

In a statewide poll by The Times last week, the President's job performance was approved by 49% of registered voters and disapproved by 45%. That was virtually the opposite of a September state survey. A nationwide Times poll two weeks ago found Clinton with a negative rating, 45%-51%. His numbers were slightly worse in September.

The President's political value in California, however, is not his power to persuade but his ability to motivate--not just Democrats to vote, but also to coax their neighbors to the polls. Anybody who would blindly follow Bill Clinton's political advice already is committed to voting for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown.

What Feinstein and Brown need are volunteers to help generate big turnouts in Democratic precincts--during a year when low turnouts are expected and Republican activists have been more enthusiastic.

Clinton will try to inject some warm nostalgia: Remember the glory days of '92, when California Democrats mounted their biggest grass-roots effort ever. The party's presidential candidate carried the state, breaking a six-election losing streak. Democrats won both Senate seats. Remember the hatred for George Bush.

Remember the demand for change.

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Yes, remember. Change really didn't happen, not as promised. So the mood of many voters has changed, from hope to anger.

"The less Bill Clinton is seen in the Central Valley, the better off Democratic candidates are going to be," says veteran consultant Darry Sragow, who is managing the tough reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-North Fork). In this congressional district, where party registration is closely divided but voters lean Republican, the President's poll numbers are very negative. Lehman's opponent has promised to "wrap Clinton around his neck."

Sragow understands Clinton's personal agenda: It is to use his current cross-country swing to polish his image and begin campaigning for reelection in 1996. "In the longer term, it's imperative for Democrats that the President regain his strength," Sragow says. "Nevertheless, for those of us trying to live through the next week, there's an argument to be made that the President ought to begin repairing his California base on or after Nov. 9."

Steven A. Merksamer, a sometimes GOP strategist, points out the risk for Democratic candidates in Clinton's visit: "He symbolizes a Washington, D.C., that is viewed as rotten and unresponsive and increasingly corrupt. Voters are looking for candidates to stand up to Bill Clinton, not to kowtow to Bill Clinton. If he could just do fund-raisers with the Hollywood glitterati and stay away from the rest of the state, that would be a net plus. But he can't. He's the President of the United States."

Even if Clinton's overt politicking is confined to just two big rallies--one on the Los Angeles City Hall steps Friday afternoon and the other in Oakland Saturday--he will be highlighted all over the state on TV news. He can campaign in the two regions where he is most popular--L.A. County and the Bay Area--but the entire state will be watching.

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Feinstein and Brown, however, will be happy to see Air Force One.

"We're very nervous about voter turnout," concedes Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's campaign manager. Polls show the incumbent with only a small lead over Rep. Mike Huffington, who continues to pour his own millions into saturation TV advertising.

Any chance underdog Brown has of upsetting Gov. Pete Wilson depends on a big turnout of minority and female Democrats, perhaps motivated to oppose Proposition 187, the illegal immigration initiative.

The state Democratic party will use Clinton's pep rallies to reward its precinct captains--they'll get reserved seats up front--and to recruit more Election Day volunteers.

As for Clinton, he probably figures Feinstein will win and he can claim partial credit. And if Brown loses, that was expected anyway and nobody will blame him.

Lehman just hopes nobody in his district watches the TV news.

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