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Politics apleanty in latest military base-closure list

President Clinton needs California to win re-election in 1996. The question before him now is, how desperately does he want it?

The base-closure commission on Friday sent Clinton a long list of military cutbacks, including a recommendation to shut five major bases in the Golden State. He has until July 15 to decide whether to return the list to its sender for revisions or forward it to Congress for a final up or down vote.

Recommendations from the eight-member, independent panel cannot be modified by the president or Congress; they must be either accepted or rejected.

No one need tell Clinton that he must have California's 54 electoral college votes if he has any chance of returning to the White House for a second term. Yet if he makes friends in California by rejecting the list, he'd surely anger the folks in 49 other states who have seen the commission cut and cut some more over the last seven years.

To the surprise of few who've seen Clinton operate over the years, this president with the lingering reputation for politically motivated decisions is letting it be known that he might indeed come to California's rescue. He would become the first president to do so since the base-closure process was set up in the late 1980s with the goal of removing the influence of politics from the task of military downsizing.

The Washington Times reported Friday that he would send the list back to the panel; the White House denied the story. Nonetheless, Clinton aides seem to be laying the groundwork for just that.

A few days ago the White House leaked word that Defense Secretary William Perry is none too happy that the commission added a few installations that were not among the suggestions the Pentagon sent the panel earlier this year. The Air Force is especially upset the commission added maintenance depots and a few other major bases to its list _ including two in California.

One of the installations, McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, is considered Northern California's largest employer. The state's two senators make an argument often heard from other partisans trying to protect their base: McClellan is, they say, "one of the most advanced installations in the entire military."

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, argue California has been disproportionately hit by military cutbacks the last few years. "The California economy cannot take additional base closures at this time," they said in a letter to Clinton.

California Gov. Pete Wilson was nice enough to chime in, though the GOP presidential contender put a sharper point on his message.

"We should suspend the base-closing process until we have a president who can offer a coherent defense and foreign policy for America as we enter the 21st century," Wilson said the other day.

The governor has just the man in mind to offer that far-sighted policy _ himself. He issued his appeal while campaigning in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary in 1996.

Still another GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, sticks to his reputation as a deficit hawk. "I would be shocked if, for political reasons going into this election, he went back on something like base closings, even though . . . my state would benefit," Gramm told NBC's Meet the Press.

And so, once again politicians are pouring on unsolicited advice as Clinton wavers between one option and another, this time balancing his roles as commander in chief and budget-cutter with that of presidential candidate. Experts say he doesn't have much of a choice but to accept the list, militarily speaking.

"In terms of jeopardizing national security _ I don't think so," said Carol Lessure, an analyst with the independent Defense Budget Project. "We have a lot of excess capacity even after this base-closure round."

That's what the commission said in sending the recommendations over to the White House Friday. The panel estimates that the closure of the 79 bases and the readjustments of 26 other installations would save taxpayers $19.3-billion over 20 years.

"I think it would be suicide, because DOD is banking on those savings," Lessure said in an interview.

A few other lawmakers are banking on something else _ the likelihood their state will actually gain in this round.

So, as Clinton ponders, Florida Sen. Connie Mack and a group of 15 other Republican senators couldn't help but register their "grave concern" about reports that the president would let presidential politics influence his decision on base closures.

Left unsaid by Mack was that the commission keeps intact big chunks of Florida's military infrastructure. Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base actually gains 12 Air Force tankers in the commission recommendations and Homestead Air Force Base remains open despite threats to close it.

It turns out those bases are among the most vital in the nation, too.

_ David Dahl is the Times Washington bureau chief.