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Kemp Means California Won't Be Ignored This Time

August 18, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

SAN DIEGO — The California delegation to the Republican National Convention performed the political equivalent of the Macarena, a new dance craze--everybody in line, swinging in unison, if not in total harmony, to the same tune.

That's a far cry from their performance at the 1992 convention in Houston. Then, rank-and-file delegates, who opposed the party's harsh anti-abortion rights platform, sat in dispirited, angry silence, as Gov. Pete Wilson pleaded with them, via satellite from Sacramento, where he and Democratic legislators were locked in a protracted budget battle, to behave. They did; they lost in November.

California Republicans have learned well the lessons of Houston; they know what can happen when a fractured party summarily abandons a key state. Fearful of another electoral drubbing this year, they navigated a different convention course.

The route was laid out even before the delegates arrived in San Diego. Where it would lead was hinted by the delegation's makeup. It was more moderate, more diverse, more pro-choice than most. And it was certainly more reflective of California's general electorate than the state's Houston contingent.

Its direction was set, too, in the relatively smooth negotiations on the state budget, which moved Wilson and his GOP legislative allies toward the electoral center on several issues of voter concern, and in the maneuvering over the platform's abortion language, guided by Wilson's highly visible defense of abortion rights. For most California delegates, hard-right turns into the fall campaign were to be avoided.

The delegation went to San Diego whistling, with fingers crossed, past the '96 presidential election. They left emboldened and energized. They're now working from two road maps, one for the fall, and one to guide them up to the state elections in 1998, or into the next presidential race.

There's general agreement that the new energy pulsing through California's delegation can be attributed to Bob Dole's choice of quasi-Californian Jack F. Kemp as his running mate. It was, said one delegation observer, "like giving water to a thirsty person."

There was "some unhappiness with Kemp" among pro-choice Republican women, because of his pro-life stance. But, as one moderate put it, "Kemp is the one guy in the party . . . whom pro-life conservatives and Republicans like me can be happy about."

Conservatives appear to be genuinely happy. Reports from Orange County, a linchpin in the Republican strategy to take California, indicate that major GOP contributors are beginning to show their enthusiasm by opening their wallets. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) said he "feel[s] very comfortable" with Kemp.

That's why, from here on out, Dole's California campaign will look a lot like Kemp. "Kemp's gonna live in California," Dole's campaign chief, Scott Reed, told "60 Minutes." Dole, presumably, will spend more of his time around his Florida condo.

Already, Kemp has begun morphing into a Golden State Republican. He used his San Diego pulpit to recant his earlier stands on the California-grown issues of illegal immigration and affirmative action; he now endorses tough curbs on illegal immigrants and the "California civil rights initiative" on the November ballot. That has helped mollify conservatives, while removing from the table an embarrassing division of opinion between the party's nominees.

Kemp's addition to the ticket, Pringle said, "helps my job" to retain the GOP majority in the Assembly. Ken L. Khachigian, Dole's California campaign chief, is talking about an infusion of $17 million into the state's GOP campaign coffers. That could make a real difference in down-ballot races. It would be a boon to several politicians who are already using 1996 to launch future political plans.

The general consensus is that Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren came out of San Diego the big California winner. A friend of both Kemp and Dole and a darling of conservatives, Lungren basked in the media's glow even as Wilson was banished, temporarily, from the podium at the height of Dole's pique over the governor's abortion-rights campaign. This convention clearly marked the passing of the torch of the state's GOP leadership from the term-limited Wilson to Lungren, the party's likely '98 gubernatorial nominee.

San Diego Mayor Susan Golding appears to have generated some political heat of her own. She's being touted by some as a possible GOP challenger to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 1998.

But what about Wilson? The early spin labeled him a loser. Indeed, had he not misjudged public reaction to his broken campaign pledge to forego presidential politics; had he not declared and stumbled so early, and had he not rained on Dole's nomination by keeping the abortion-rights controversy afloat, he "coulda been a contendah," either for vice president or as the party's alternative if Dole stumbled.

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