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WASHINGTON TODAY: Vacationing With the Enemy

April 1, 1994

CORONADO, Calif. (AP) _ Sometimes it seemed as if all the people here who voted for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential primary were standing right outside his borrowed oceanfront estate this week to catch a glimpse of him.

All 640 of them.

Clinton did slightly better than that in the general election, but voters in this moneyed town preferred George Bush or Ross Perot by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

For his break from the pressures of Washington, Clinton chose an unlikely escape: a wealthy, sleepy-paced, bougainvillea-bedecked resort peninsula dominated by two major military installations. To say it’s staunchly Republican would be an understatement.

Kevin Parriott, executive director of the San Diego County Republican Party, put it this way: ″Bill Clinton coming to San Diego is like Ronald Reagan going to Detroit or Madison, Wisconsin.″

Navy SEALs and ″top gun″ fliers are trained in this enclave joined by bridge to San Diego. Hundreds of retired admirals live here, among them James Stockdale - Perot’s vice presidential running mate. Fully a third of Coronado’s population is tied to the military.

″There’s mixed feelings″ about Clinton at North Island Naval Air Station, allowed Damon Driscoll, 21, a fireman apprentice watching Clinton jog on the beach. ″I like him, no problem, but there are some people who don’t.″

For instance, the retired Republican admiral quoted by columnist Tom Blair in the San Diego Union-Tribune. ″This neighborhood is going to hell in a hand basket,″ the man said one morning as the president jogged by.

Clinton avoided the draft as a youth and, as president, tried to end a ban on gay soldiers. His relations with the armed services are tense. So are his relations with the rich.

There have been new taxes for many in Coronado as a result of the tax-the- wealthy economic plan Clinton muscled through Congress last year. Median income here is $58,000. The median home price in 1991 was a hefty $687,000.

Clinton, despite his Ivy League exposure and his wife’s lucrative adventure in commodities, doesn’t have the money or the image to inspire confidence among locals who still engage in quaint customs such as dressing for dinner.

″This is neither Arkansas nor the stuffy wonkdom of D.C.,″ the fashion editor of the local paper warned Clinton early in the week. ″Suitable dress would be characterized as ‘resort.’ That means no neon.″

Why, one might wonder, would Clinton even want to come here?

Well, there is that beach front, 17-bedroom, 13-bathroom, three-kitchen, one-music room mansion with a pool that he’s borrowing from his friend and contributor M. Larry Lawrence - the new U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.

There’s 70-degree weather, flower-fragrant air, isolated beaches and dozens of verdant golf courses nearby.

And let’s not forget, this is California - with its enormous cache of 54 electoral votes and a presidential primary less than two years away. Clinton, who carried the state with some help from Perot’s diversionary effect, has been in assiduous courting mode since Inauguration Day.

He’s been here something like 10 times since then. He’s observed earthquake damage, delivered economic aid, comforted victims of health-care problems and the health-care system. His vacation here is attracting attention and business, and who knows - maybe even garnering a few votes.

The courtship may be paying off. A Los Angeles Times poll today showed Clinton with a 58 percent job approval rating in the state - up 7 points from October and his highest in California since he became president.

Activist Republicans, who protested Clinton’s last visit to Coronado in May, are lying low this time.

″We’ve been getting quite a few angry phone calls. We’ve been pushed to organize demonstrations against him,″ Parriott said. ″But Coronado is just too small. If we put 1,000 people in there for a rally, that would basically shut down the whole city.″

For every sign that says ″Stop the Lies and Murder″ or ″Impeach Clinton,″ the president has received dozens of smiles and shouts of encouragement.

Small merchants on boutiquey Orange Avenue - worried about their futures under Clinton-style health-care reform - nonetheless displayed welcome signs and illuminated festive white lights that weren’t supposed to go on until the 4th of July.

Most people with reservations are simply keeping quiet, as good manners dictate, or falling victim to the generic mystique of the presidency.

Sherry Hamilton, executive director of the Coronado Chamber of Commerce, said several prominent Republicans managed to find and shake hands with Clinton during one of his beach jogs.

″I won’t tell you their names,″ she said. ″But I recognized them on TV getting a great kick out of it.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Jill Lawrence covers the administration and national politics for The Associated Press.

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