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Affirmative-Action Backlash Softens

Drive to set aside minority preferences in California runs into funding problems

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THE rush to dismantle racial preferences and set-asides has slowed here in California, the birthplace of the crusade against affirmative action.

After sparking a political brush fire last February that swept from coast to coast, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a ballot proposal that aims to end government programs giving minorities and women preferences in employment and schooling, now looks more like a controlled burn.

The announcement of the proposal spawned an unprecedented media and public response. Other states drafted similar resolutions, President Clinton and Congress each called for possible overhauls of racial preference policies at the federal level, and the Supreme Court jumped in last month with a key ruling.

But now, with presidential candidates of both parties withholding endorsements of the California measure, and opposition women and minority groups joining forces, CCRI organizers are running into fund-raising jams and lackluster public support.

After legislative versions of the initiative failed in committee, the citizen-backed version has yet to be formally filed or collect a single signature. Backers have reached one-fourth of their funding goals.

Larry Arnn, chairman of the CCRI campaign, thinks the initiative will eventually pass handily. But he says waking up a state as big as California takes months of hard work, preparation, and planning.

''There are inherent difficulties in building from the ground up over such a huge state as the first big, national battleground,'' Mr. Arnn says. ''We knew it would be darn tough raising the amount of money we need, and now I'm ready to admit it's been harder than we thought.''

John J. Miller, vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, notes that a competitive fund-raising atmosphere has stifled CCRI organizers at the outset. Several GOP candidates are trying to raise money in the state. A half-dozen other initiatives are being readied for the ballot. And opponents are confusing donors and voters by introducing initiatives of their own with similar titles and language, but with references to protections for such groups as homosexuals.

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