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Tom Wood is an unassuming man carrying a devasta-ting statistic. He is a scholar, former professor and co-author of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a referendum to outlaw governmental discrimination and preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. If passed in '96, opponent and proponents know, it will mark the beginning of the end of our quarter-century experiment with affirmative action.

The statistic that Wood notes with such satisfaction is not that Californians favor the CCRI by 2-1; that there is no gender gap between men and women on the issue; that between 40 and 50 percent of Hispanics and blacks favor it. The statistic that Wood wields with such calm confidence is the following: The Field Poll reports that 20 months before this issue goes to a vote the "undecideds" are 5 percent.Five percent. There are more people undecided whether Elvis is dead. Five percent - 1 in 20 - undecided tells us that affirmative action is not a issue that people have to think anew and figure out.

Like abortion and the death penalty, it is a lived issue, one they have experienced and thought about for years. Unlike President Clinton, they do not need a bottom-up review to figure out where they stand.

It is the 5 percent undecided that makes the job of the opposition to the CCRI so hard. Opponents are not just trying to shape a debate. They have to change minds.

And many minds have been set by the near comical overreaching of California's affirmative action forces. Four years ago, the legislature actually passed a bill mandating public universities to produce ethnic graduation rates that matched those of California's high schools.

The ultimate liberal dream: The vexing problem of the disproportionate college dropout rate of minorities solved overnight by legislative fiat.

That schools, as Wood has pointed out, would have had to grade students according to ethnicity was no impediment to the egalitarian zeal of the legislature. Only the governor's veto saved California from this monstrosity.

Graduation-by-race marks the final corruption of affirmative action, the ultimate descent from equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. The CCRI is a democracy's way of saying: Enough.

President Clinton, as usual, does not know what to say. He has ordered an "internal review" of affirmative action. It has, predictably, gone nowhere. He is now reported to be considering a punt of even longer hang time - a national commission - to keep from having to declare himself on the issue.

Clinton's incoherence on affirmative action was highlighted by his remarks in Sacramento last week. On the one hand, he declared himself resolutely opposed to any "reverse discrimination." On the other, he boasted that "the small business administration under my administration last year increased loans to minorities over two-thirds, to women by over 80 percent, but did not increase loans to white men."

An interesting presidential boast: While some preferred groups advanced, white men were held back. The numbers I obtained from the SBA show that the president is wrong: Loans to white males did increase.

But no matter. What is telling is that Clinton thought they did not and that this was, in and of itself, a good thing! It is because it is impossible to square racial and gender preferences with opposition to "reverse discrimination" that Clinton is so immobilized by the affirmative action debate.

That debate is not helped, moreover, by media that portray opposition to affirmative action as nothing more than the rankest pandering to a constituency of angry white males.

ABC News, for example, reporting (March 26) on Republican calls to end affirmative action, informed its viewers that the idea "resonates with white men. An ABC News poll shows that more than 80 percent opposed preferences for women and minorities. That's too many potential voters to write off."

Telling the full story, of course, would have undercut the implication that opposition to affirmative action is the province of self-interested white males. Acknowledge that women, who benefit from preferences, nonetheless oppose them overwhelmingly in nearly identical numbers, and you have to acknowledge that perhaps we might be dealing here with a matter of principle.

That cannot be admitted, however. Proponents of the CCRI will, accordingly, continue to be portrayed as the leading edge of a white male mob. But it won't work. Not just because it is a slander. But because 95 percent of the people -men and women - have already made up their minds.