SACRAMENTO — Five months after suffering one of their worst electoral drubbings in years, California Democrats gathered in Sacramento on Friday to begin organizing a comeback that they hope will return President Clinton to the White House in 1996.
At the opening of the annual Democratic State Convention, party Chairman Bill Press described the state's Democrats as "chastened, but realistic and determined." An estimated 4,000 delegates and guests--a record--were expected for the three-day meeting, Press said.
He said the theme will be: "Bill Clinton is California's best friend."
"He has delivered for us. And we will deliver for him in 1996," Press said.
Clinton arrived in Sacramento on Friday evening and was scheduled to deliver the convention's keynote address this morning.
Political experts agree that Clinton must carry California's 54 electoral votes to win reelection.
Press noted at a news conference that this is Clinton's 19th visit to California since becoming President. He talked about Clinton's help in getting California through a variety of disasters and a depressed economy, but said the story has not been adequately told to the people.
Last November's elections are still on the Democrats' minds. Republican Pete Wilson won reelection as governor over Kathleen Brown, who was hailed as the brightest new Democratic star in California in years. The GOP also made major gains in other state offices, the Legislature and the congressional delegation.
Now Wilson is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, in part on the complaint that California has "suffered needless hardship" under Clinton. Wilson was off campaigning in Arizona when the President arrived at Sacramento's McClellan Air Force Base on Friday.
Convention delegates will not hear from Brown, the woman who was their political heroine just a year ago. Brown planned to spend the weekend in San Diego helping celebrate the third birthday of her twin grandchildren, an associate said.
As much as Press sought to emphasize party unity behind Clinton, he could not escape the fact that the party faces fractures over how to deal with a proposed 1996 state ballot initiative seeking to eliminate state affirmative action programs.
Press is sponsoring a resolution that puts the party in opposition to the measure. Some other Democrats, fearful that issue could divide Democrats the way illegal immigration did in 1994, are cautioning the party to take a more moderate approach.
As Clinton in effect begins his California reelection campaign, his popularity remains relatively high. In a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in March, Clinton enjoyed a 50% overall job approval rating, compared to 41% who disapproved.
But Times Poll assistant director Susan Pinkus said, "Clinton has to shore up his core constituencies in order for him to win in California" and strengthen his appeal to Republicans and moderates.
Clinton also should be concerned that 40% of Californians believe Republicans are better equipped to solve California's problems, compared to the 30% who think Democrats are, Pinkus said.
"It is all about perception," she said. "Clinton has to get his story across that he is helping California."
Mervin Field, founder of the Field Poll, said the big GOP victory in 1994 does not necessarily carry over into another big Republican year in 1996.
"Presidential races are different than midterm elections," Field said. "In the current climate, the personality of presidential candidates has an even larger weight than usual. The big advantage that Clinton has is that the Republican field does not include anyone the public particularly warms to."
Field also said Clinton could benefit if Wilson stumbles in the East or Midwest. A bitter GOP battle in the March 26 California primary also could benefit Clinton, who so far faces no major opposition to renomination, Field said.