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California Democrats see GOP tide pulling them under

They still hold the reins of power here. But with Ronald Reagan in the White House and a national focus on the so- called New Right, California Democrats are not taking anything for granted these days -- including elections that are still nearly two years away.

Largely unscathed by the voter frustration that turned liberals out of office around the country last November, Democrats here -- like their colleagues nationwide -- are caught up in redefining a party vision they hope will fend off a renewed Republican thrust in 1982.

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True to the party's often tumultuous decisionmaking tradition, Democratic deliberations here range across the political spectrun -- prompting Senate president pro tem David Roberti, a Democrat, to comment: "If you think Democrats are going to come up with any cohesive party policy, absolutely not."

Nonetheless, interviews with Democratic leaders during the party's recent state convention indicate an awareness of a need to revitalize the party -- particularly in California, where both Republican and Democratic officials say their respective prospects in 1982 will be at least partly determined by the performance of native-son Reagan as president.

"Our goals haven't changed," says Nancy Pelosi, newly elected Democratic state party chairwoman. "We still want a fair shake for everyone. But now some of the methods we've used to achieve those goals are under scrutiny.

"Somehow along the way, in our interest to have government serve the people, liberals became synonymous with somebody who supports waste in government," she continues. "We've got to change that."

Last November's election results, interpreted by many political observers as a broad rejection of New Deal liberalism, combined with the loss of some moderate Democrats to Republican voting ranks, have not gone unnoticed here.

US Sen. Alan Cranston (D), for example -- one of the few liberals targeted by conservatives to survive last year's election -- told reporters he does not plan to obstruct the economic policies of the Reagan administration.

And in listing Democratic Party principles such as a commitment to civil liberties and human rights, Senator Cranston also noted the party's commitment to "protecting the environment, although not harassing business unduly with regulations."

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Other Democrats, such as California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, are urging the party to take a new look at issues such as crime. Democrats, she contends, must show a greater concern with protection of the public than with rehabilitation of criminals.

"The party has got to follow the people," she says. "If it really wants to be the party of the people, then it better follow the people."

Just how Democrats should be "the party of the people," however, is the subject of wide-ranging discussion. Longtime liberals argue against compromising Democratic principles, claiming that "the party of the right already exists, in the words of John Henning, head of the state AFL-CIO. Other leaders contend the party must find new answers to once- Democratic issues now championed by the Republicans, such as the economy and housing.

But perhaps the most significant and most widely commented on element to emerge in the ongoing debate has been the growing presence in the state Democratic Party of former antiwar activist Tom Hayden and his four-year-old Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED).

CED election victories now total two dozen local offices around the state. Interestingly enough, although the party has been described as a far-left faction, CED also has long been active on an issue Republicans now try to tout as their own: returning government to local control.

CED activists have fought hard, and in many cases successfully, in getting local ordinances passed on such issues as rent control and solar energy -- lining up against traditionally Republican business interests who have pushed to remove control on these issues from local governments to the state level.

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