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Clinton Zeroes In on Reviving California's Sagging Economy


WHILE President Clinton was pitching his economic program in the shade of a bottle-brush tree here this week, Charles Hill was across the street working on the books at Dad & Me Auto Repair.

Mr. Hill, the "Dad" in the business he has owned for 25 years, says he thinks Mr. Clinton could be doing better with the nation's bookkeeping.

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He is willing to accept higher taxes, of the right sort, but wants to be sure they are put toward debt reduction. Though not a Clinton supporter, he is willing to give the new president time before judging too harshly.

"The man has got a mean job ahead of him," he says, fiddling with a power screwdriver. "He's our president and we need to give him a chance."

Clinton faces an undercurrent of impatience as he takes his economic message outside the bubble of Washington's Beltway.

Even many detractors appreciate his earnestness and believe four months is too short to be writing a presidential epitaph.

But even supporters concede that whatever economic plan the president and Congress ultimately cobble together better yield improvements down in the body shops and industrial bayous of America.

"This is deliver time," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "At some point, there will have to be results." Ron Brown put on California `case'

In few places are the expectations higher than California, where the economy continues to limp along and where the president's talk of "change" found widespread resonance last fall. In his latest trip to the area, as in ones in the past, he reiterated the need to revive California if the United States economy is to turn around.

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He has put Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in charge of developing a federal strategy to help the Golden State. Mr. Brown has been to California seven times in the past four months, highlighting the state's importance to the White House as a political base.

The talk of special attention plays well here - as do the images of the president shooting hoops in South Central, talking amiably with students at Los Angeles Valley College, and jogging with Navy SEALs, members of the sea-air-land Special Forces unit, on the beach in San Diego.

But beneath the handshakes and sound bites will eventually come the dollar-and-cents amounts of federal aid, and whether this aid reaches anyone.

"It's nice if people accept the idea that California is going to get help," says California pollster Mervin Field. "But then they start to look at how it is going to relate to their job."

Top Democrats remain optimistic about the potential for benevolence from Washington. The state is getting $900 million to help reimburse the costs of immigration, less than some would like but more than others expected.

Other aid that would impact California is tied up in the president's "stimulus" package, killed in Congress. Although he vows to revive portions of it, there is no assurance Republicans - or the public - are in the mood for more spending.

The state will also be affected by the president's high-tech initiative, and by whatever money goes into helping defense workers find civilian jobs. Clinton vows to make California a "national model" for defense conversion.

"I think he recognizes more than anyone that the state needs special attention," says Bill Press, state Democratic Party chairman.

Still, the president's standing here will ultimately turn on his economic wizardry more than on any federal largess. On this, and other issues, he still draws mixed reviews:

* Retiree Edward (Bud) Maggiore calls Clinton an "empty suit" - someone who doesn't keep his word. A Ross Perot supporter, he wants fewer taxes and more spending cuts. His biggest concern, though, is stopping the influx of illegal immigrants across the southern US border.

* Ida Gurvin, who watched the presidential motorcade zip past her house this week, supports Clinton, with one exception. "I'm not in favor of all the taxes," she says, standing in front of her tidy San Fernando Valley home. "I can't afford them."

* Meledy Sheldon took her nine-year-old daughter out of school to see the president. She faults him for not keeping all his promises, but is optimistic about his presidency. She urges more spending on education. On her no-no list: sending US troops to Bosnia. Mayor's race ahead

One gauge of the president's clout in Los Angeles will come in the mayor's race next month. Clinton endorsed Democrat Michael Woo this week. He is in a tight race with millionaire Republican Richard Riordan.

The endorsement might bring Mr. Woo some badly needed campaign funding. Appearing at the president's elbow could also help the youngish candidate overcome a "gravitas gap."

Woo trails Mr. Riordan in the largely middle-class San Fernando Valley, an important swing-voter district Clinton did well in last November.

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