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NEWS ANALYSIS : State's Woes Not Expected to Hurt Wilson's Campaign : Politics: Analysts say presidential candidate alone can't be blamed. And California's clout still counts.

August 28, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

You've heard it all before. California, where the dream has turned into a nightmare. The place where serial murderers come to murder, gangs to rampage, flakes to flake, nature to vent its rage with earthquakes, floods and fires. Where housing prices plummet, the economy founders and counties stand in line at Bankruptcy Court.

So why would anyone from this sun-kissed Sodom have a chance to be elected President, much less a guy on whose watch California has suffered $26 billion worth of disasters?

Because, political analysts say, the state's political importance has survived intact despite its slide toward the abyss.

As Gov. Pete Wilson today formally announces his bid for the presidency, most political analysts believe California's turn for the worse will have little impact on the governor because it will be difficult to blame him alone for every hit the state has taken.

The bottom line, it seems, is still the numbers. California was home to almost 11% of those who cast ballots in the 1992 presidential election, more than any other state. Ditto its role in campaign finance: Californians donated 12% of the contributions of $200 or larger made to candidates in the 1992 primaries, according to federal records.

It is still the state with the mostest, at least as far as electoral votes--54--are concerned. And, to put it bluntly, there is not a politician alive who thinks President Clinton can win a second term without California's support unless the race is drastically redrawn.

So even if Wilson cannot count on winning California--and recent polls have him losing here in prospective primary and general election matchups--he still comes into the race bearing a presumption of some clout.

Political Benefits

The biblical nature of the state's recent disasters have not changed that. Indeed, California's troubles have become Exhibit A in Wilson's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. As he joked recently in New Hampshire and repeats most places he campaigns:

"A friend of mine says I understand very well why you're running for President. Having presided over 22 natural disasters in California, it's the logical next step on a career of masochism."

If he cannot be blamed for most of the disasters, Wilson is trying to reap their political benefit by persuading voters that anyone who can govern a state with this many problems, man-made and natural, has the necessary experience and will to run the nation. That sense of, well, pride in California's recent chaos also has infected other members of the governor's staff.

One pointed out, when asked, that since Wilson became governor 4 1/2 years ago, "every single county" has been declared to be in a state of emergency at one time or another, some of them more than once.

"A pretty amazing record, certainly unequaled in any state in the union," the aide offered somewhat boastfully.

Sally Novetzke, a Wilson volunteer and political veteran from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says voters in that first-caucus state are surprisingly well-informed about the governor's tenure in California. (Though few of them thought enough of Wilson to trek to the recent straw poll in Ames, where he placed a dismal eighth). She suggested that, overall, the challenges he has faced in California help his candidacy.

"Most of us look at California as a mini-United States. Geographically and demographically, you have everything the other 49 states have," she said. "If you're going to elect a governor, please let it be from a state large enough to handle the problems the U.S. has experienced."

While Novetzke is charmingly polite, that last comment could reasonably be taken as a slam against former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who is running against Wilson for the GOP nomination. It also resurrects the often-heard insult leveled by Republicans against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992: "The failed governor of a small state."

Poles Apart

There is evidence, however, to bolster Novetzke's contention: Two of the nation's last six presidents--Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan--have come from California. They are the only presidents since the 1950s to be elected to two terms. The former governor of a smaller state, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, lost his reelection bid, and the jury is still out on a second term for Clinton.

But Nixon and Reagan were poles apart when it came to political and personal appeal. Which raises the question: Just what is a Californian, in the minds of presidential voters?

If recent candidates are any gauge, there is no one answer.

In Nixon, voters saw a political persona so starched that he walked the San Clemente beach during his presidency wearing spit-shined black wingtips. And while he began and ended his public life in California, great blocks of time in the middle were spent in New York, New Jersey and Washington, making him as much a national figure as a Californian.

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