President Bush on Friday touted his new health care plan in San Diego during his first election-year appearance in California, where his advisers now expect him to spend more time in 1992 than in any other state.
The plans for intensive attention to California reflect Bush aides' unease about the political impact of the state's shaky economy, and their conclusion that the state will be the crucial battleground of the general election.
"We'll tamp down our states and they'll tamp down theirs," a senior Bush campaign strategist said in an interview this week. "But then it's going to come down to California."
Because Bush traveled to California to deliver a policy-oriented speech, the costs of his trip were borne by taxpayers and his freedom to make partisan political points was limited.
But Bush conceded to the San Diego Rotary Club on Friday that he had been "sorely tempted" to make a more overtly political appeal.
For the second day, he sought to sell his plan of tax breaks to help low- and middle-income families pay for health care, while bashing Democratic alternatives as steps toward "socialized" health.
"Some say nationalized health care would serve everyone. Sure it would--just like a restaurant that serves bad food, but in very generous proportions," he said to laughter and applause in his Rotary speech.
Bush also erected a new defense against criticism that his $100-billion plan could not be adequately funded. He suggested that health care costs to government and individuals would plummet if Americans would just take better care of themselves.
He also cut short a reporter who asked what he would do if new taxes were required to pay for the plan. "It's not required," Bush said.
After a day in which his plan had seemed to fall flat on audiences in Cleveland and San Diego, Bush won a far more enthusiastic response from the Rotary audience, which reflected the chapter's heavily Republican membership.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the reception to the plan from the health industry itself has been "very good. It's been excellent. Great."
Other sources said Bush added San Diego to his health care itinerary in large part at the urging of Gov. Pete Wilson and other state Republicans, who have forcefully warned the President's reelection campaign that it must not take California for granted.
In a series of interviews this week, top officials of the campaign stressed that they are taking the message literally. "It's safe to say that we're going to wind up spending more time in California than in any other state," one official said. One-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win a presidential election are at stake in the state.
Republicans have carried California in every presidential election since 1964. But Bush defeated Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts by only three percentage points in the state in 1988, and his advisers concede that the state's economic troubles have plainly undermined his appeal.
Bush is expected to begin a series of political trips after he makes his candidacy formal at a rally in Washington on Wednesday.
Bush campaign officials said they hope additional Bush trips to California will blunt economic-based anger in the state by featuring his plans for the environment and education.
Among the trips already scheduled are journeys to San Francisco and Los Angeles later this month for $1,000-a-plate fund-raisers. At the same time, campaign officials said they plan to hire advisers better versed in California.
"It's just a different world out there," one official said wearily in an interview near the campaign's downtown Washington headquarters.
Campaign strategists remain confident that Bush can fare well in the Southern states that have become a Republican stronghold. But for now, at least, they are less certain about his prospects in the industrial states, where Democrats have historically run strongest.
In looking toward California as the site of the general election showdown, the Bush advisers said their conclusions were motivated in large part by a continued belief that a victory in the state would make it all but impossible for the President to lose reelection.