ATLANTA — Orange County delegates to the Democratic National Convention had planned to use oranges, wrapped in an information sheet, as a gimmick.
The oranges never made it. But it didn't matter. The message had preceded them: The county is part of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis' plan to win California and the presidency in November.
"I think we're going to surprise people in Orange County and the suburban communities in California," said Tony Podesta, who will run Dukakis' campaign in California. "Our campaign will not be based on an exclusive concentration in the urban areas. We will be active throughout the state."
Early in the week, Podesta and Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich met over breakfast with leaders of the California delegation to the convention to assure them that their state was a high priority in the campaign.
In what amounted to music to county Democrats' ears, Podesta and Estrich said about $4 million has been budgeted for the state for voter registration, get-out-the-vote and other field efforts, a substantial increase over earlier presidential campaigns. The county will get its share of that money, Podesta said.
"The one thing everybody agrees on is we have to have a grass-roots campaign in Orange County," Podesta said.
Delegates Howard Adler of Laguna Hills and Richard J. O'Neill of San Juan Capistrano, a former California Democratic Party chairman, said they lobbied Dukakis campaign strategists at the breakfast meeting to make sure campaign resources would be available for the county. They handed the strategists copies of the information sheet that declared: "Ignore Orange County--Lose California."
Other delegates, including several state officials, backed them up, they said.
The two emphasized that a serious effort was warranted, despite the county's reputation as a Republican bastion, because it also has nearly 370,000 registered Democrats.
Granted, there are far too few Democrats to get local Democrats elected, and there are no local Democrats holding partisan offices except for state Sen. Cecil N. Green of Norwalk, whose district is divided between Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Nonetheless, Orange County has more registered Democrats than any county in the state except Los Angeles and San Diego counties--enough to make a substantial impact on state and national elections.
"We are the minority, but that doesn't mean we aren't significant," said delegate Bruce W. Sumner of Newport Beach, a former Orange County Superior Court judge.
Democrats are the first to concede that the county is undisputed Reagan territory. President Carter lost in 1980 by a 350,000-vote margin for Reagan in the county; former Vice President Walter Mondale's 1984 loss to Reagan in the county was by more than 400,000 votes. Many of those who voted for Reagan were Democrats.
Local Republicans are hoping that they can hold onto those votes for Vice President George Bush, the apparent nominee.
"It's no accident that Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for the presidency in Orange County four years ago, and it's no accident George Bush spent primary night in Orange County," said delegate Sumner.
But there was considerable talk in Atlanta that with Reagan at last off the ticket, Democrats who voted for him may not automatically vote for Bush.
Dukakis Campaigned in County
During the primary, Dukakis and members of his family spent a considerable amount of time in the county, making it clear that the nominee understands that there is something at stake in the area.
There already is a skeleton of a campaign organization in place. County Democratic volunteers are out this week trying to take advantage of heightened political awareness during the convention by trying to register 2,500 new party members.
Adler said he told the Dukakis aides that it was "unlikely we can win Orange County" but that if the margin of GOP victory can be kept to no more than 150,000 votes in the county, the Democrats can win the state.
"The Dukakis campaign seems to be prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve that," he said. "They were prepared to run with or without us. It will be easier with us."
As for the oranges, the delegates were afraid that if they bought them locally, they would be from Florida, which would make their whole effort a joke. And it would have cost hundreds of dollars to have them shipped from California.
"It was just too expensive," Adler said.