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Cloud Over Morris Puts California Delegation on Storm Watch

Politics: Controversy surrounding former Clinton advisor dampens the mood of some in group. Others go looking for the silver lining.


CHICAGO — California Democratic Chairman Art Torres compared it to a pimple--annoying but temporary. Convention delegate Richard Mathieson of Santa Clarita hoped there might be a silver lining. U.S. House candidate Brad Sherman reasoned that many voters can't even remember the name of their congressman, let alone a presidential advisor who may have gone astray.

The resignation of White House chief political strategist Dick Morris under a sex-scandal cloud was the talk of California delegates Thursday, just as they prepared to return home for the critical final push at delivering the state to President Clinton this fall. Confident but cautious, they rued the awful timing of the Morris story, but tried not to let it ruin their weeklong party here.

"I can't imagine this will have any effect at all," said Sherman, a member of the state Board of Equalization who is running for Congress in the San Fernando Valley's 24th District. "Dick Morris' name ID nationally is equal to that of the Albanian prime minister. The fact that someone who you haven't heard of is resigning from a job you never knew he had is no big deal."

Torres, looking a bit glum, tried to downplay the Morris matter as well. "Everyone thinks a pimple is going to last their whole life," he said. "This one has popped. Now it's gone."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein was more visibly perturbed by the news. "It comes at the worst possible time," she said. "Frankly, it's a big bump" for Clinton's campaign.

The chagrin that Feinstein and some other California delegates expressed over the Morris story was all the more pronounced because, until Thursday, this had been an unreservedly jubilant week for them.

Every morning, a parade of officials--from Vice President Al Gore to Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt--had courted them over breakfast.

A delegation party inside a Chicago museum went into the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, with political activists dancing next to elected officials.

Conversations among the state's 424 delegates frequently centered on Clinton's solid poll numbers--both in California and nationwide--and the party's real chance of winning back the House.

On Thursday, the focus turned to Morris and his alleged relationship with a reputed call girl.

In the lobby of the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where the state's delegates stayed, Morris' resignation in the story's wake caused an immediate buzz, even as details remained hazy. The flap shook the delegates up a bit, something party leaders have been trying to do in a different way all week to avoid overconfidence or complacency from setting in. Republican Bob Dole's presidential campaign has vowed to fight for California, which the state's Democrats know will have an impact on races up and down the ticket.

"No state is ever locked up," cautioned Torres. "The cardinal rule is the only poll that matters is on election night. People are getting ready to get back home and get to work. We have to translate the excitement among the delegates to the people back home."

One who is ready to start just that is Ruth Weisman, a 69-year-old political activist from Culver City. Full of excitement for her party, Morris resignation or not, Weisman said she is anxious to start getting down to the nuts-and-bolts of electing Democrats.

"I'm a grass-roots person," she said. "I do precinct work, knocking on doors and making phone calls. I make people vote. I hear all their excuses and if they say they can't leave the children, I say, 'I'll stay with them. You go vote.' "

Weisman shrugged off the Morris resignation when another delegate rushed into the Hilton lobby with the news. A 60-year veteran of Democratic politics--she distributed Franklin D. Roosevelt fliers in the 1930s--Weisman knows that every campaign has its ups and downs. In fact, she thrives on the uncertainty of it all.

"I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs," she said. "I do Democratic politics."

On the bus that shuttled California delegates from their hotel to the convention hall at the United Center, delegates talked in hushed tones about Morris. Several, noting his history of working for candidates of both parties, stressed that he is not a "true" Democrat. Mathieson, the Santa Clarita resident and a retired union activist, saw a silver lining to the blow, or at least he was spinning as much.

"I think it's going to have a reverse impact," Mathieson said. "I see it as a help. Voters are going to say, 'This was probably planted by the opposition. This has nothing to do with President Clinton. ' "

For Tom Umberg, the Clinton campaign's state director, the Morris resignation was another twist in a long process, the very sort of thing he said makes politics so unpredictable--and exciting.

"Every day I get new surprises," he said. "That's what campaigning is about. This is one more."

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