The nightly tracking poll taken for the California Teachers Association, and made available to Republicans on Friday morning, was startling. Thursday night's telephone interviews about the race for governor showed beleaguered Republican candidate Bill Simon leading Democratic Gov. Gray Davis 34.2 percent to 33.7 percent. The three-day tracking roll gave Davis a mere 2.7-percentage-point lead.

Those numbers collide with Democratic surveys that show a double-digit lead for Davis. They also force a decision on President Bush that must be made instantly. Should he pay a final, one-day visit to San Diego, perhaps next Monday, to affirm Simon as the Republican Party's California standard-bearer in good standing? Or should he not risk the damage to his prestige in the Golden State that could result from association with a drubbing?

At stake is not just the way the nation's most populous state will be governed for the next four years. The baroque Simon-Davis contest is drenched in 2004 presidential politics. Bush's friends here are concentrating on his becoming the first Republican to carry the state since his father in 1988. Whether Davis tries for the Democratic nomination in 2004 will be determined by his reelection effort this year.

Davis ought to have nothing to worry about. The California Republican Party, nonperforming and torn by bitter feuds, has hit bottom after decades of decline. Democrats enjoy immense advantages in money, organization and even the erstwhile Republican superiority in getting out the absentee vote. On top of this, Simon's error-plagued campaign shows that a shakedown candidacy for a county board of supervisors or the state Assembly would have helped. Indeed, the conventional wisdom remains that Davis will win easily against a man best known for being the son of financier William E. Simon, a former secretary of the Treasury.

Diluting these immense advantages, Gray Davis is undoubtedly the most unpopular governor of California that anybody can remember. Prominent Democrats privately express contempt for him as a relentless fundraiser without principles. One well-known elected government official told me he had endorsed Davis as far back as the 1998 Democratic primary but now considers him "another Nixon." He rages that Simon is about to be wiped out, propelling Davis into the White House. He plans to vote for Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo.

The poll for the teachers association (by Washington-based Republican pollster Jan Van Lohuizen) showed in the Tuesday-through-Thursday three-day roll last week that 52.9 percent of Californians think the state is on the "wrong track," compared with 30.4 percent who say it is going in the "right direction." Davis has never recovered from his handling of last year's energy problems.

Most dangerous for Davis are possible defections of Latinos, who make up one-third of the state's population. The legislature's Latino caucus refused to endorse Davis because he vetoed a bill that would have enabled illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, a measure shown by surveys to be widely unpopular. In response, the governor moved quickly to get 17 of the 22 caucus members to sign an endorsement.

Questions cannot be definitively answered until Election Day. Will the lingering undecided voters just stay home? Could an unusually light turnout defeat Davis? Has Simon, the victim of Davis's unremitting attack ads and his own mishaps, become unelectable in California?

There are loyal, well-placed California Republicans who feel that Simon should never have run in the first place, that he is a sure loser, and that the president should stay out of California for the next two weeks. Published reports suggest that he might come into Rep. Gary Condit's district in the Central Valley to support an underdog Republican bid for Condit's successor. That won't happen. If Bush comes in, it will be to help Simon.

This is a test for the president and his political team. A stunning upset by a terribly flawed campaign would cheer an election night on which longtime Republican governorships in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin probably will end in top-heavy defeats. Bush backers in California distrust the teachers association poll and fear humiliation for the president. A gambler would come here, but Republican presidents usually don't gamble.

(c)2002, Creators Syndicate Inc.