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California and the West

Clinton Creates New Hurdle for Panetta

Politics: Ex-White House official is deciding whether to run for governor of California, but events in Washington are a distraction.

January 29, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

At every crucial point in his ruminations about running for governor of California, Leon Panetta has been smacked upside the head by the specter of President Clinton's troubles.

Last spring, after Panetta delivered a homecoming speech in Sacramento that was widely seen as his first public flirtation with the race, the former White House chief of staff was pressed by reporters about his knowledge of White House coffees, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and illegal foreign campaign donations.

Last week, as he once again publicly raised the notion of running, Panetta was ensnared in the brewing allegations about Clinton's relationship with a young White House intern--who, it turned out, had once worked in Panetta's office. On Wednesday he spent hours before a Washington grand jury investigating the case.

It was enough to make even Panetta partisans shake their heads.

"It's pretty hard to see how he could run a campaign with all this going on," said one prominent California congressman, normally a Panetta fan. "He's a lot like the guy who was standing on the corner and was hit by a truck."

In truth, it was a little hard, largely for financial reasons, to concoct a scenario for a successful Panetta campaign even before intern Monica Lewinsky became front-page news. But this week illustrated anew the mass of negatives that Panetta would bring to a race and the dearth of positives--a crucial ratio, given the relatively short time before the California primary.

Unfortunately for him, Panetta is also an exemplar of the differences between what is valued in Washington politics and what matters in California. Through the Washington looking glass, Panetta is known as a solid straight arrow, a policy wonk well-liked by Republicans and Democrats, the classic big fish in a small pond. In California, he is Leon Who?, a vaguely known former congressman with no money and no campaign organization, a minnow in the Pacific.

Panetta said last week that in the wake of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's decision not to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he would decide whether to run within days (he has not returned telephone calls from The Times). He will have to decide by the filing deadline, Feb. 4.

When he left the grand jury room Wednesday, Panetta issued a plea that could have been made on behalf of both the president and his own ambitions.

"My fervent prayer is that for the sake of the president and the sake of this nation that this matter is resolved soon, so that he and all of us can continue to focus on the issues that affect our families, our nation and our future," he said.

Talk of a Panetta gubernatorial bid began even as he resigned as Clinton's chief of staff after the successful 1996 reelection campaign. He moved back to California after Clinton's 1997 inauguration, but apart from one high-profile Sacramento speech he exhibited few concrete plans to run.

He held off because of Feinstein's potential entrance, his associates said. But she delayed her decision until last week. And then, less than a day after Panetta publicly renewed his interest in the race, the intern story struck with Watergate-like intensity. Panetta, who has been phoning associates to gauge the interest in his bid, was inevitably drawn into the controversy.

"This is exactly the moment where he needs to be sitting on the phone with party leaders, and instead he's in Washington walking through a media circus," said Democratic political consultant Jim Margolis. "I don't think it could have been worse timing. The double whammy of a late Feinstein departure and the arrival of Monica Lewinsky is, I think, really rough stuff for him."

Panetta's problems have little to do with his intellectual candlepower or his dedication to politics--both of which are lauded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Rather, they seem to rest on the gulf between the power-and-diplomacy imperatives of Washington and the media-and-money demands of California campaigns.

"Leon Panetta has always been considered in Washington a sort of Mr. Solid, the inside guy who could mind-read Capitol Hill for the president, who was known and liked by Republicans and Democrats alike . . . someone who had the institutional memory lacking by anybody in the White House but who also enjoyed a lot of respect," said Margolis, the consultant who is based in Washington but spends much of his time in California. "For voters in California, this is a blank slate."

Political observers in California believe that the latest controversy merely adds to Panetta's difficulties in mounting a race for governor. Normally, a successful candidate needs money, name identification and campaign organization. A deficit in one area can be overcome--at least in part--by strengths in another area. But Panetta has deficits on all fronts.

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