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Wealthy California Viewed as the ATM Of American Politics

Candidates wanting to fill their war chests have long turned to Wall Street tycoons and the glitterati of Hollywood. One dinner can yield hundreds of thousands - even millions - of dollars. But this year the recession and the crowded playing field mean the money isn't flowing as freely.

PRESIDENT Bush recently took time out from campaigning in the South to dine on veal and baby carrots in California. It proved to be a lucrative meal.

By the time the 1,300 Republicans in the posh ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel here had finished their chocolate mousse, they had contributed nearly $1.3 million to the president's reelection effort.

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It was fund-raising Los Angeles style: lots of cash, celebrities, and curly endive.

As the pace of campaign '92 quickens, presidential hopefuls are golden parachuting into California to replenish their treasuries.

Sure, they're interested in wooing California voters too, but with the state's pull-up-the-rear primary still months away, most of the forays these days are for cash.

For instance, President Bush was in California for a one-day trip in which he launched a border environmental initiative and stroked the Republican faithful, some of whom are worried about his prospects here in November. But much of his focus was on fund-raising. At the $1,000-a-plate dinner here and a luncheon in San Francisco, he raised $2 million.

A few days later, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) was arriving to shake hands and pass the hat to his own group of supporters, celebrities and otherwise, while former US Senator Paul Tsongas (D) was tinkling glasses with Greeks, business leaders, and other Los Angeles notables. Westside a mother-lode

As a funding source, the city is "huge," says Marge Tabankin, president and executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Action Committee, a major contributor here. "I think West Los Angeles produces more money for candidates than any other district in the United States."

Indeed, if California is the ATM (automatic teller machine) of American politics, then Los Angeles is one of its biggest vaults. Besides the Hollywood community - which has always been a source of cash and charisma for politicians while politics has been a source of power and purpose for celebrities - there are developers, the aerospace industry, financial and oil backing, and the wealthy Westside, which includes Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Brentwood.

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But while the city has deep pockets, there are forces at work this year that could curb giving. One is the recession, which has hit California harder than most states. Even though joblessness wouldn't seem to be a concern among those who frequent Spagos and the Polo Lounge, the economic slump has affected industries that are major donors, such as entertainment and real estate.

"It does impact giving," says Robert Burkett, a top Democratic fundraiser here who is heading up the money drive of candidate Sen. Bob Kerry (D) of Nebraska. "No matter how wealthy you are, writing a check for a $1,000 becomes burdensome."

On the other hand, he says, the recession has made George Bush politically vulnerable, which has opened up some Democratic giving.

Another impediment is the number of people seeking contributions. Besides the full slate of presidential contenders and the out-of-state politicians who routinely shake California's money trees, this will be an unprecedented election cycle for in-state candidates.

For the first time in history, both of the state's United States Senate seats are open, and redistricting has produced seven new congressional districts in California. This has caused turnover and maneuvering at every level of government. Some estimate the Senate contests alone could consume $50 million.

"You have more people making demands and less disposable cash on the part of those who contribute," says John Emerson, chief deputy Los Angeles city attorney and Democratic activist, who backs Mr. Kerrey.

One result of this, says Herbert Alexander, a campaign-finance expert at the University of Southern California, is that Los Angeles is "probably going to export less money" out of state this year. Women candidates drawing well

Signs of this are already evident. Ms. Tabankin of the Hollywood Women's PAC, which has given $4 million to federal candidates since 1984, says contributors this year "want to take care of their home base" first, though one exception has been women politicians, who she says have been drawing funds no matter where they're from.

Many of the presidential contenders, though, maintain they are still seeing healthy donations for a late-starting campaign. President Bush's take in the chandeliered ballroom here underscores his fund-raising ability, despite GOP anxieties about his standing in the state.

Clinton and Kerrey have done well in southern California, aided by Hollywood connections. Jerry Stearn, Clinton's western finance director, estimates the campaign had garnered $500,000 (including federal matching funds) in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and this was before a big fund-raiser here last week which drew $400,000.

Mr. Burkett puts the Kerrey receipts at $300,000. How well the candidates do, though, depends on their latest showing in what has largely been an Andy Warhol campaign - one in which different contenders have become famous for 15 minutes after winning a primary. Kerrey contributions, for instance, slowed down just after his lackluster showing in the New Hampshire primary but financiers were buoyed after his South Dakota win. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has raised about 10 percent of his campaign money in Califor nia.

Mr. Tsongas's fund-raising effort shot up after New Hampshire and his regional finance director, Demetrios Boutris, believes the candidate has the economic message and "character" appeal to maintain a broad base of supporters.

As for the most glamorous givers, the celluloid set, they continue to choose sides. Clinton, for instance, has had the backing of TV producers and fellow southerners Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, as well as producers Dawn Steele and Patricia Duff Medavoy.

Sally Field and PMK publicity agency head Pat Kinglsey are in the Kerrey camp. Ed Asner and Roseanne Arnold back Harkin. So does one-time MASH regular Mike Farrell. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) still maintains ties to Tinseltown. Tsongas has his own followers, but his handlers don't like to play the "name the celebrity" game.

Nor is all the glitz on the Democratic side. Although his favorite pectoral pitchman, Arnold "hasta-la-vista" Schwarzenegger, was absent, President Bush was surrounded by his own group of well-wishers at the fundraiser here: Jaclyn Smith, Andy Williams, and GOP stalwart Bob Hope.

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