LOS ANGELES, NOV. 1 -- Fat and somewhat proud of it, with far more people than any other state and a $680 billion economy that dwarfs all but a half dozen countries, California lumbers toward Election Day cranky and confused about who should lead it in the 1990s.
The impossibility of reaching 30 million people of such diverse interests with one coherent message has left the gubernatorial campaign organizations of Sen. Pete Wilson (R) and former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D) exhausted and irritable. After spending a total of more than $35 million, they find themselves still close in the polls and have in the final days fallen back on hitting each other with tattered cliches -- Feinstein as the Democratic tax-and-spender, Wilson as the Republican protector-of-the-rich.
But that does not diminish the personal and political luster of the prize. The next governor of California will become an automatic possibility for president or vice president in 1992. The next governor will also have a major impact on how an expected 52 congressional seats -- the largest state delegation in U.S. history -- will be allotted during reapportionment.
"California is now a fifth of what you need to be president," said University of California at San Diego political scientist Sam Popkin. "It's still the wave of the future. For every real estate agent who retires to Oregon, there are three Asians ready to take his place."
A Los Angeles Times poll of 1,993 voters released today showed the race still a statistical dead heat, with Wilson at 43 percent and Feinstein at 42 percent. But Wilson had a 3-point lead among those most likely to vote. In the latest Mervin Field California Poll of 1,248 voters, also released today, Wilson was ahead 47 to 39 percent.
Wilson appears to be the beneficiary of a surge of GOP absentee ballots, the result of a special $6 million Republican campaign, and a narrowing Democratic registration advantage (49.6 to 39.1 percent) in a state where Republicans are more likely to vote. Feinstein's smiling, waving campaign verve has hit a peak in recent days, but stirring speeches no longer win elections in this megastate and she has not yet found the campaign commercial to close the gap. Her staff introduces her with the theme from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to signify a perilous battle against political snakes and booby traps.
Few observers a year ago thought Feinstein could come this close, but her solid victory in the primary raised expectations that she might become the state's first female governor. Barring a last-minute surge, she may lose narrowly because of a few small missteps, including an ill-timed negative ad and an attack on Wilson's absenteeism in the Senate that denied her one last crack at him in a debate.
Voters are not expected to turn out in great numbers to choose between two candidates with few major policy differences. Nor are they pleased by an enormous ballot with 28 propositions that generated a confusing barrage of competing commercials expected to cost more than $100 million.
Some of the voter disinterest in the gubernatorial election may also stem from the realization that in one important respect the race ended a long time ago. Both Feinstein and Wilson are ex-mayors who love to govern, and are so different in style and temperament from outgoing Gov. George Deukmejian (R) -- described by one GOP Assemblyman as "basically a bookkeeper" -- that a turnabout in Sacramento seems inevitable.
Wilson would be less likely to raise taxes than Feinstein. She in turn would be far more cooperative with the Democratic-led legislature than Wilson. But experts in both parties have concluded that whoever wins, the capital will be seeing a much more aggressive and flexible executive, with a longer wish list and far more willingness to compromise to get it.
Both Feinstein and Wilson promise to reform the system of budget allocations in Sacramento, where fiscal arteries are clogged with legally mandated spending initiatives. Both say they will improve health services and find new ways to fund the two state services that seem to have top voter priority-criminal justice and education.
Feinstein has already said she would be willing to raise taxes on upper-income earners. Wilson has been less willing to discuss tax increases, but Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, has concluded he is "not unalterably opposed to spending money and is not a knee-jerk anti-taxer."
Deukmejian's hard line against taxes and government regulation of business has many supporters, and some obvious benefits. The economy was so strong it cleared away in less than a year all but a few signs of the most damaging earthquake since 1906.
But the state's phenomenal growth has left government services far behind, giving California the look of a rosy-cheeked teenager in worn-out shoes and clothes several sizes too small. "In San Diego you're beginning to see water and sewer pipes breaking with regularity," said Popkin. "You see toll roads coming back, and lagging school infrastructure."
The ambitions of both candidates to revive the state's budget process and unleash California's full economic potential faces one unexpected obstacle, a sleeper initiative called Proposition 136 that would require two-thirds majorities in the legislature to approve new general or special taxes.
The initiative is the work of the political heirs of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, the late authors of 1978's Proposition 13, which began a national anti-tax revolt. Its opponents have been too distracted by the governor's race and other initiative fights to put up much of a resistance.
Berg opposes the measure, and insists voters would too if they had time to consider its impact. But in the last weary days of a campaign Californians have struggled to understand, Berg said, "I don't count on common sense ruling the day."