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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Dole's Uphill Attack vs. Clinton's Bravado

August 29, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

CHICAGO — The word from the White House to California Democrats this week is straightforward and simple: President Clinton will do whatever is needed politically to win the state in November.

If Bob Dole spends millions on TV ads--as he is now--Clinton will spend millions. If Dole keeps stumping the state and gaining ground, Air Force One will fly in for counteroffensives.

Conversely, if Dole isn't getting very far in the state with the biggest bloc of electoral votes--one-fifth the total needed to win--Clinton will save his money and time for more competitive battlegrounds.

Pretty basic stuff. But it is being emphasized to nervous California Democrats by Clinton strategists to assure them that the president is not about to become smug and get caught from behind.

The Californians' main concern is not the White House, per se, but the "down ticket" races in Congress and the Legislature. A big turnout for the top of the ticket helps all party candidates.

"We've got a commitment by everyone--from the president on down--that they're going to spend whatever is necessary," says former Assemblyman Tom Umberg of Villa Park, the state campaign director.

This is how Umberg describes Clinton's California strategy:

"They're attacking uphill. We keep firing, firing, firing from the top until they go away. We're not going to let them take the hill."

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"Yeah, yeah, I know they're 'unbeatable' and all that," says Ken Khachigian, Dole's California strategist. "But a lot of that is bravado."

Khachigian is an in-your-face pol who never quits. He envisions the president quaking because Dole picked California native Jack Kemp as his running mate. Vice President Al Gore can't match up in the state, the GOP guru insists.

He is upbeat about a Field poll taken after the Republican convention that showed Dole halving Clinton's lead to 10 points from 20 in California. Clinton also undoubtedly will get a "bounce" from the Democratic convention, but that doesn't seem to worry Khachigian.

He has his "fishhook" strategy.

Take a map of California and draw a line from Redding down through the Central Valley, continuing south into inland Southern California clear to the Mexican border. Bend the line west through San Diego, then north to Long Beach. "It looks like a fishhook," Khachigian notes.

"That's our base. That's where we're going to hammer and hammer."

The fishhook is loaded with GOP-leaning swing voters, many living in 10 counties that voted for Clinton in 1992 after siding with George Bush in 1988.

"Bush gave California up," Khachigian says. "Dole wants to win it bad."

That's why the Kansan has been vacationing in Santa Barbara, which he hadn't been to in 27 years.

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"I have a very simple view of this," says Bill Carrick, who is Khachigian's counterpart as California strategist for Clinton. "Every minute their candidate spends in the state, he can't spend somewhere else. And he can't win California, so come on out."

Carrick adds: "This is [Walter] Mondale '84. Dole can't win without California, and he can't win California. They can chase this dog all they want, they ain't gonna catch him."

Certainly, Dole cannot catch up with Clinton's presidential trips to California--26 so far.

The conventional wisdom is that a Republican candidate doesn't need California, but the Democrat does. History, however, disputes that thesis. Jimmy Carter won the White House while losing the state. But the last Republican to be elected president without California was James Garfield in 1880.

There's also pundit patter that Dole only needs to be "competitive" in California and force Clinton to spend resources there. This talk has led to basketball analogies, like "head fake" and "slam dunk."

Practically every Clinton advisor and party leader I've talked to here thinks the president is a slam dunk to carry the state--although they won't say that publicly--so nobody is going to be fooled by a Dole head fake. The Clinton team is capable of reading polls, watching ad buys and assessing how competitive the challenger really is.

Privately, they expect Dole to go all-out until mid-September. Then if he's far behind, he'll pull ads and stump elsewhere, leaving only a field operation dependent upon volunteers. Clinton will do likewise. The Dole camp acknowledges California will be reassessed late next month.

"There's a lot of hype going around," Carrick cautions. "Truth is, it's all hot air, whether coming from us or them. We'll get outside the euphoria of the conventions and take a cold, sober look at what's going on."

They'll especially be looking at that current Dole assault up the hill.

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