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Candidate Clinton Digs for Valuable Votes in Golden State

CLIMBING a steep hill to a fence topped with barbed wire, President Clinton thrusts his arm between strips of jagged metal and shakes hands with a frenzied late-night crowd.

Aides roll their eyes, both bemused and impressed by the lengths their boss will go to court Californians. ''One year and two months to the election?'' a top aide says, laughing.

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The countdown begins.

Labor Day, the traditional start to the political season, brought Clinton to a state he must win at a time he plans to intensify his campaign.

Fresh from a 17-day vacation and a weekend mix of work and play in Hawaii, the president was scheduled to dedicate a new college here and attend a holiday picnic in Fresno. But the main purpose of this two-day trip is politics.

So far, the president has succeeded in keeping his second-term ambitions from coloring everything he does, though he told reporters months ago he would run for reelection and has hosted several million-dollar fund-raisers.

Campaign offices are small, with few employees. Top campaign titles are still unfilled. And the president, aides insist, has spent little time on election politics.

That will change quickly - beginning with this Labor Day visit. Clinton is expected to announce key campaign advisers in the next few weeks and has a lengthy campaign trip scheduled for late September. From yesterday forward, President Clinton can't avoid being Candidate Clinton.

CALIFORNIA is the logical place to get the campaign in gear, with its 54 electoral votes and huge supply of campaign cash. He earned an upset victory in this state three years ago.

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This is the president's 24th visit to California since February 1993, a remarkable number. And when he comes, Clinton usually brings gifts.

The president and other administration officials have wooed the state with $3.2 billion in assorted aid. He is not expected to bring any ''goodies'' this time, though he will promote a $240 million federal investment in converting the closed Fort Ord into a college campus.

The president narrowly trails Senate majority leader Bob Dole, the Republican front-runner, in most state polls. And California Gov. Pete Wilson, also seeking the Republican nomination, says Clinton has done little to help himself. ''Despite frequent visits by the president and his army of Cabinet secretaries, the administration's policy decisions have done California much more harm than good over the past three years,'' says spokesman Paul Kranhold.

Clinton left for California after attending religious services in Honolulu on Sunday, capping three days of events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

While there, the commander in chief rode a barge through Pearl Harbor and threw a flower petal in the waters washing over the USS Arizona, where more than 1,100 Americans remain entombed.

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