SACRAMENTO — It's campaign season again for most of the California Legislature, only this time there's a new element at work.
Some may ignore it; some fear it's a vote-killer. Some will seize the opportunity it presents.
The "it" is the President Clinton scandal. Never mind that it's 3,000 miles away from state Senate and Assembly races. It is popping up in some crucial contests, including the race that tops Republicans' list of seats they believe they can seize.
Republican Phil Hawkins of Cerritos, trying to unseat Assemblywoman Sally Havice in that intense contest, said he has "been knocking on doors" and finding Democrats repulsed by the Clinton revelations. As the campaign progresses, "we will make reference to it," he said.
Havice's reply: The president has created a "mess" for himself, but "obviously, I'm not Bill Clinton. I'm Sally Havice"--who, she said, has introduced a string of bills, some signed into law, that benefit her blue-collar district.
Three hundred miles away in the San Joaquin Valley, Democrat Sal Cannella said that if the Clinton scandal surfaces in his race to upset the Republican incumbent, he will turn it to his advantage.
"The Clinton thing helps me," Cannella said. "I've been married to the same woman for 34 years. My opponent has been married four times. . . . I'm on the right side of family-values issues."
As theories abound on Clinton's potential election-day impact, Republican strategists are hoping that Democrats will be so disenchanted with Clinton they'll stay home and not vote.
In tight races where fewer than 1,000 votes might make the difference, depressing the Democratic turnout could be crucial, notably in Assembly races. That, coupled with the historic fact that Democrats, in any case, do not vote as regularly as Republicans in nonpresidential elections, gives Republicans in legislative races added hope.
Democrats counter that it is a stretch to attempt to link candidates for the state Assembly and Senate to the wrongful behavior of a Democratic president.
"I don't think it gets down to local races," said Senate leader John Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco. "I think Democrats are going to be so hungry to elect a governor that they will turn out higher than they usually do in a gubernatorial year." High on the November ballot in visibility and TV ad spending is the race for governor between Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren.
On the other hand, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) worries that the Clinton phenomenon could hurt Democrats. "The president's controversies could have an impact" on whether Democrats vote in November, he said.
If California voter turnout is below the 8.9 million of 1994, "we could be in trouble," said Villaraigosa, who is in charge of trying to hold the Assembly's Democratic majority, now at six seats.
Republicans won an Assembly majority in 1994 for the first time in 24 years, then lost it in the 1996 elections. The state Senate has been in Democratic hands since 1970.
At stake in 1998 legislative races are all 80 seats in the Assembly and 20 of the 40 seats in the Senate, where Democrats command a 23-to-16 majority.
Republicans Hope to Recapture Majority
In the Assembly, Republicans say recapturing a majority is within range. A switch to Republicans in just four Assembly districts would put them back in charge.
GOP campaign chief Bill Leonard, the Republican leader in the Assembly, said a Republican takeover is doable, and that the Clinton troubles could be a factor, as history suggests.
Leonard said he watched in dismay as "Republican voters punished Republican candidates by staying home" in 1974, the year President Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate, and again in 1992 after "President Bush lied," saying he would not raise taxes.
"I have only sympathy for Democrats now when their leader lies to America," he said.
Much of the legislative campaign plotting mirrors the nation in its divisions and contradictions in response to the Clinton scandals.
"We view these races as local races that will be fought on local issues," said Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, a Senate GOP strategist. He said using Clinton "is not part of any plan that I am aware of."
Assessments of Assembly races, by both parties, echo pledges of responsible, issue-oriented campaigns.
And then things like this are said:
"We have pictures showing Democratic candidates with Clinton," said a Republican Assembly campaign advisor. "We may use them. We may not. We're waiting to see how [the Clinton factor] plays out."
It's a plus, said the advisor, "that we don't have a president to defend."
A few blocks away in Democratic campaign offices, "there is no evidence that the president is being generalized to other candidates," said Darry Sragow, the Assembly Democrats' campaign manager.
But he said he watches private polling "continually," on alert for any sign of a voter mood swing.