In the Nixon days, after things turned sour and the threads of power unraveled, some instant armchair philosophers had a ready explanation for what went wrong. It was the Southern California mentality that led to the fall -- proof that this section of America, basking in the perpetual sunshine within sight of sea and mountain, created a culture without roots, a society without perspective, a citizenry without values, unable to distinguish between the claptrap of the advertising agencies and the machinations of the political huckster. The charge was false, a slur on a people and a region.It was an easy device for self-anointed interpreters of America to explain away the attitudes and judgements of an entire nation. But Southern California does pose an enduring puzzle of contemporary American politics: Why in such a gentle place of open and friendly people do such extreme political beliefs and activities arise?

Here the Democratic candidate for Congress is a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Here the zealous religious fundamentalists now active in politics are proliferating tenfold over the last few years. By posing their tests of a candidate's morality they are becoming a new force in local races. Here you pick up the local magazine to find an article touting a smooth-faced, cherubic-looking young man, with hair properly styled and collar naturally open, as the next governor of California, a state larger and far wealthier than most nations in the world. He's Mike Curb, now 35, who started his own record company in the 1960s, promoted such TV performers as Donny and Marie Osmond and Debbie Boone to what passes for American stardom, made a personal fortune out of recording so-called family-oriented western and country groups, got elected lieutenant governor as an ultra-conservative Republican, and attracted national attention earlier this year when he began appointing conservatives to the bench and quickly signing new laws while the young governor, the ultra-liberal Jerry Brown, was out of state trying to become a Democratic president.

And here, perhaps more than in any area, stands the center of Ronald Reagan's strength.

Unlike many Jimmy Carter supporters, who often express disappointment with the president's performance in office and concern about the future, even though they are going to vote for him, here the Reagan backers seem to entertain no doubts. "I don't see him having any problems at all after he's elected," one of them said. She spoke with absolute assurance, and a belief common among the Reagan voters -- that a dramatic change will occur in America once Reagan becomes president. In every other section visited these last weeks, indecision about the final presidential choice and unhappiness over the prospects, no matter who wins, are dominant. Here conviction reigns. oThese voters, in this season of judgement, know exactly what they want, what they expect, and why they are voting. In a negative political time, they are the last of the truly positive Americans.

They share another common view -- that this election represents a crucial resting for America. To one Reagan voter, the decision to be rendered by citizens on Nov. 4 is akin to the selection of Lincoln at a moment of historic national trouble. "Unless we get a complete change of administration and a different way of doing things in our government, we're going down the drain," she said. To another, the choice before the voters is the sharpest in almost a generation and the stakes the most important in half a century. "Usually nations are offered an opportunity for fundamental change long before they accepted it," he said. "This nation was offered that chance in 1964 and turned it down. I think many people in both parties regret it. I think now the United States is offered another fundamental opportunity for change, and it will be a change of direction almost as dramatic in what it meant for the country as the period after the 1920s."

As these words indicate, the tone is highly serious, somber even. But the people speaking them are far from grim. They exude sincerity and earnestness when they spell out their view of America that a Reagan presidency will change -- a place of moral decline and decay filled with bankrupt governmental policies and confronted by an international menace that comes at a time when the world seems spinning out of control, in no small part because of American failures of will and action.

Some of the dialogue:

The luxurious way of living always brings in a period of homosexuality. Go back and read the Greek stuff, or the Roman. Are we going to be taken over by the barbarians? . . .

The Vietnam war destroyed the fabric of this country because of the way it was hampered by political restrictions. . .

The Monroe Doctrine is dead. We're allowing Castro to export terrorism. . .

Judges are letting murderers out of jail to go and kill again. Look, if you had a rabid dog, what would you do? Put it out of its misery. People who commit murders are rabid dogs. They're not human. You've got to treat them like rabid dogs . . .

From the Christian standpoint, there are a lot of prophecies in the Bible about what's going on in the world today. Ezekiel. Daniel. Matthew 24 -- a whole lot of prophets. The Bible quite explicitly speaks about where the world is going today; it just doesn't say the hour and the day. aAnd it's a pattern of events that all started with the establishment of Israel as a nation.

What's most striking about these kinds of remarks is the setting in which they are made. In the southernmost area of California, evidence of the good life abounds: The stores overflow with luxury items, the fine restaurants are filled, the streets are clean, the surrounding neighborhoods scattered over hills, and along the water are visions of the affluent life. No hardships are seen to be worked here. Skim the pages of San Diego Magazine and you find ads the New Yorker would envy for their evocation of the tasteful possession of the world's material goods, all in the best understated style. A photograph of an adobe house set on a lakefront and surrounded by 4.8 acres is "offered at 1,650,000," and in such small type you barely see the figure or the missing vulgar dollar sign. A few pages later, what appears to be a quite ordinary Cape Cod-style home is going for $410,000 in nearby La Jolla. The same La Jolla real estate firm has a more luxurious bay-front home -- four bedrooms, five baths, library, guest house, pool, spa -- within steps of the San Diego yacht club for $725,000. Nor are these the only homes in the million -dollar range on the market.

Yet amidst such signs of comfort, and while speaking with such pleasant, easy-going people, the picture that emerges is one of the most dire trouble. But it is also a picture of people convinced that help, in the form of Reagan, is on the way.

They are his friends, many of whom will be speaking here, and they have watched and followed and believed in him for years. If he is elected president just a few days from now, their vision of a Reagan America helps to explain why Reagan has remained so popular for so long, and what hopes his faithful have for him and their country. The Banker

"When I started with Reagan I was in completely different circumstances," says Gordon Luce. "Now I'm the chairman of the board of a large financial institution [San Diego Federal Savings and Loan] but then I was, lets say, more independent in terms of my politics and my feelings. I was resentful of what I saw were the Republican losses in parts of California. I've been a Republican all my life, as my dad was -- he was a Bull Mooser, Theodore Roosevelt's party, and he came from here, too -- and so along comes Regan as a candidate in California. We were looking for a change at the time. There were problems on the campuses and problems in California. I'd been enough in business to know there'd been overregulation and a lot of harassment for business; we had cut back the cost and size of government. So I joined the team and was his chairman in San Diego as a volunteer in those days. I met Ron and his wife Nancy and took a liking to both of them. They are very appealing people and those days particularly, as younger campaigners in their first campaign out, it was fun to campaign and work with them. When he was elected I got the call as a citizen-politician speaking out about how California needs a change and I'd better get up there to Sacramento and do something about it. So I went up there."

Luce, a tall athletic-looking man, was speaking in the board room of his downtown San Diego bank, one of those airy glass-and-wood structures filled with plants that soften the normal austere feeling you get in most financial institutions and whose architecture perfectly fits the casual life style of this area. He served as secretary of business and transportation during Regan's first term as governor, and continues to be a Regan confidant and adviser. At present, he's a member of the select group of wealthy businessmen and politicians who form Reagan's executive advisory committee.

"Things haven't changed much," Luce says, speaking of the presidential campaign issues. People know government is too powerful, too oppressive. Everybody -- liberal, moderate, conservative -- is saying we have to cut back the cost of government. That's become a very popular term. It wasn't so much when Ron ran the first time for governor. He was one of the main spokesmen for it. I see that as an overriding issue still. If we can do that, then we can curb inflation. If the spending slows down and in my business -- housing, savings and loan -- we will again see better times in terms of costs of money and providing housing.

"As far as the world situation, we're losing the race in a lot of directions. Military strength is just one of them. Europeans are coming to America because our prices are less and theirs are higher, but we're being treated now as the second-class country. We were the great nation. We traveled to those countries, and we got the bargains and we were the big people of this earth. Now we see ourselves as not so much so. Maybe there had to be a balance struck, maybe we were misled in thinking we were too important. It's a big world -- so we have to get some context there. But I see us as not being thought of as what we were. We have this attitude that we can do anything. We have the resources, the great people. We should be the top leaders, not to oppress everybody but help anybody. And to be respected. So I'm for any change that will bring about. That is real important for our families and so forth.

"Ron likes to surround himself with people who know what they are doing. He likes competence. He had good people in Sacramento. Remove me from that because I can't be objective, but the rest of the team I worked with did a damn good job there. If Ron becomes president, I will say this -- a change in America at this time has to turn this country on. I think most people will say let's give it a chance, let's get America going again." The Investment Counselor

Norm Roberts has been co-chairman of Reagan's presidential effort in San Diego for the last two campaigns. He's proud, as he says, "that Ron announced, or semi-announced, that he was going to run for governor from my garden. I invited about 500 people and he said he would accept us raising funds for him. That was the purpose of the meeting. I'm sort of a soldier in the ranks, but I have followed him closely for a long period of time.

"What I like most about him is the fact that he's a non-politician. I think politicians are one of the principal problems of the country. In his eight years as governor, none of the political aspects of Sacramento wore off on him. He seemed to be immune. He did not become political. I feel he's completely incorruptible. He may not be brilliant, but he's far more brilliant than the press generally has given him credit for. These so-called bloopers -- he always made bloopers when he was running for governor and it was mainly the press that got upset about it.

"Another thing is the Eastern Seaboard, in my humble opinion, has never accepted Reagan. I'm in investment counseling, and I talk with a lot of people in New York and Boston, and they have never accepted him. 'Is this guy for real?' they say. You know, this kind of thing. They don't realize the shift of power is to the West. And speaking of wars, I think anybody that can possibly say he's for war is calling him a monster, and you just can't call a person a monster without some pretty strong justification for it.

"To understand Reagan you have to understand California. California's really split in halves, the northern and the southern. In the northern, the people are renters and more liberal. San Francisco's a city of renters. It's not growing. Sacramento's a city of bureacrats and politicians. Oakland, you've got tremendous problems, racial and all this. The facts are the pool table is tilted toward San Diego, you see, and a lot of them are stopping off in pockets along the way. But in the final analysis, a lot of people come down here. They're, you know, a different type of people -- generally better educated, generally more prone to travel, generally prone to change jobs more often. And a lot of these people are the supporters of Reagan. They're the basic support because they have enough imagination to go beyond the Ku Klux Klan and other bloopers and get down to the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts. And they are for getting rid of Carter and all his terrible mistakes and lack of intellect and lies and everything else." The Lawyer

J. Michael Dade is the San Diego exception. He's a Republican, and for Reagan, but he would rather not be. "I feel very dismayed with what we have before us today," he says. "It's with a heavy heart that I'll be going to the polling place."

McDade has been active in Republican activities here for years. He's also been involved in running a number of campaigns, including the most recent race for the present mayor of San Diego -- and he was involved in Reagan's first campaign. "But I am not the same breed of Republican as many of those around Reagan," he says.

"At this point, after much thinking, I will be voting for Reagan, I will not be doing it with any sense of joy. But I see a number of reasons why that's almost an imperative to a thinking person. One, in the area of national defense I think we are extremely weak right now. I think that while Reagan doesn't have a panacea for it, and he may have an oversimplistic approach in slashing taxes and increasing defense spending, at least, I think the orientation is correct in putting defense as a national priority that I think it has not been the last four years. The economy is the other reason.

"Personally, I am not overly fond of Reagan's political people. Many of the people around him, more than Reagan himself, tend to be ultra-conservatives, some of them almost to the radical-conservative level. I don't feel they have a balanced historical perspective on America. I very much hate by my vote to be lending support to these people. It would almost be nice to have them die off, but I don't think that's going to happen in this campaign.

"Reagan's age troubles me not in the abstract, but in the reality. I observed him very closely from 1966 on and in '66 he was a marvelous person. He was captivating. Well, sometimes he oversimplified. But he could express ideas and move a crowd better than anybody I had seen. Now he's still got some of that, but the edge is gone. If he gets away from his cue cards the guy is not capable of thinking on his feet. I very much worry about it. But I do expect his administration to be very strongly shaped by the staff people. And I do feel that in the past he's demonstrated ability to bring in good professional people into government. I think those people he brings will probably give more stability to the economic situation. For that reason, I hopeful for a change.

"With respect to Carter, he's a national disaster of such magnitude that future generations should build a monument to him. I think he is a person who is totally calculating in his political approach, and is an intellectually dishonest person. This campaign is very much of a disservice to the American people. I'm very much angry about it. It bothers me as a politically oriented person to see the people for the highest office in our land -- and a lot of lesser ones, I might add -- don't really perceive the total disaffection of people to this style of campaigning. I really think that if anybody had had the guts to run a positive issue-oriented campaign they'd be surprised at the results. But the current political wisdom won't let them do it." The Tilt

This brief window on California closes with an observation and an impression.

In all that has been written about this place, and all the trends supposedly to be plucked from it, an important fact often is overlooked. California is neither solely a right-wing bastion nor a Republican preserve. It is, more than any other section of the country, the land of experimentation -- in politics no less than in living arrangements. However, strident some of the views appear when set down on paper, they never match the demeanor of the people expressing the opinions. Here the people can be both laid-back and conspiratorial at the same time, and still somehow retain some of the most open, trusting and engaging qualities you'll encounter anywhere. But they do seem removed from much of the hard realities of the rest of the country. Even more strangely for a people who all came here from afar, many recently, they do convey a lack of perspective about where America has been and is going.

But that, of course, probably stems only from the warped perspective of an Easterner who stil finds it all somehow baffling. Perhaps the Reagan supporter is correct. Perhaps in two more weeks we'll awake to find the pool table of America has tilted toward the South and West, and we'll all find our pockets among the Southern California culture. Then we can say, with Stephen Vincent Benet, don't worry about past or future, just accept the fact that it is here.