Like a fickle sweetheart, California is flirting with all three major presidential candidates, promising what appear to each of them to be a tantalizing opportunity to win its all-important 45 electoral votes.
And, like ardent suitors, President Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson are courting the state assiduously.
The most recent "date" was Monday, Sept. 21, when President Carter swept into the state for a town-hall meeting. The President also attended a Democratic fund-raising dinner.
The stakes in this campaign courtship are high. Those 45 Golden State electoral votes are the most for any state in the nation. And, as California pollster Mervin Field points out, no president since World War II has won office without carrying both California and New York, another key electoral state that is rated as up for grabs.
Recent polls here have shown the once-wide gap (31 points) between Carter and Mr. Reagan narrowing to 6 to 10 percent. Political observers agree that California voters, like their counterparts across the United States, have not been decisively swayed by any of the three candidates so far.
"It's just amazing that there are still some people who say, at this late date, that they see the possibility of Anderson making a surge, winning a few states," says Mr. Field. "It shows you what a completely unstructured and fluid , incredibly fluid, situation it is."
But unlike virtually every other state in the nation, California has something different going for all three contenders.
Reagan is well known and enjoys the strong pull of a two-term former governor. He generally has run well in all of his races here.
"The advantage Reagan has here is that almost all Californians know he isn't a bogey man -- which isn't something understood by voters in, say, New York," contends I. A. Lewis, who runs the Los Angeles Times poll.
"In California, they know his bark is worse than his bite, that half the things he says, he doesn't ever do," continues Mr. Lewis. "And there's no reason that shouldn't work on his behalf here."
But REagan is hardly taking his status for granted. Already, 110 Reagan-For-President offices have been opened statewide and there are plans for more. More than 2,000 volunteers have been recruited on his behalf. On the 48 days remaining in the campaign, Reagan will spend four on his home territory -- the same number scheduled for Carter.
For Carter, meanwhile, there is the clout of an incumbent president. His strategists announced in late August that California would be one of their "target" states. And although he lost this state to Gerald Ford in 1976, it was by only 140,000 votes -- or 1.7 percent of the total.
The Carter campaign here is being run entirely by political insiders, and they have rounded up a fairly unified group of Democratic stumpers that includes even longtime Kennedy supporters, such as former US Sen. John Tunney
"If anything unifies California Democrats, it's the specter of Ronald Reagan, " says Carter state coordinator Barbara Johnson. "There is no one we have asked who has turned down our request to actively participate."
Carter forces have earmarked $2 million for their push in California, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 54 to 34 percent. They have slated, as well, a number of personal appearances by such "big guns" as former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, and Vice-President Walter Mondale. Mr Mondale was on had for Los Angeles's recent kick-off of its 200th birthday observance.
For Anderson, California offers what may be the largest concentration in the country of the affluent, well-educated, and suburban voters who are the basis of his support.
Anderson, much of whose efforts now are focused on raising the money his independent campaign so sorely needs, already has campaigned here more than both of his opponents combined and is expected to make "several" additional trips to the state before Now. 4.