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Congressional, Legislative Races Are Priority, State GOP Says

Election: Party leaders shift focus from Dole's struggling presidential bid, although they say he can win in California.

September 08, 1996|DAVE LESHER and BILL STALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ANAHEIM — Politely but assuredly, California Republicans turned their focus away from Bob Dole's struggling presidential campaign Saturday by calling on the party's activists to help fight a high-stakes battle for control of Congress and the state Legislature.

Remember 1992, state Republican officials said at their semiannual convention here. That's the last time a failing GOP presidential candidate abandoned California and was blamed for a Democratic windfall in races for Sacramento and Washington seats.

"I don't expect to see that happen again," state GOP Chairman John Herrington said. "I realize it's on everybody's lips . . . but I don't think in '92 we knew how bad it could be until we saw what [former President] Bush did in California. . . . We now have that information in black and white."

So party leaders insisted that Dole will wage a serious campaign in California--if not for himself, then for the good of his party.

Political strategists describe a fierce battle in California for control of the Assembly, now held by a razor-thin Republican majority. The state Senate is in Democratic hands and is expected to stay that way in this election, most observers believe.

In Congress, the 52-member California delegation is split exactly in half, 26 Democrats and 26 Republicans. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this week that Republicans could gain three seats or lose four in California, depending on how the election goes.

Herrington said Saturday that the Republican Party expects to spend about $13 million from state and national sources for its California candidates in this election.

But Herrington also said he hopes to spend another $500,000 to help pass Proposition 209, the November ballot initiative to eliminate affirmative action programs in government. The Republican Party already invested nearly $500,000 to help the measure qualify for the ballot.

Many Republican officials believe the initiative will help their candidates because it is popular in polls and it is opposed by many Democrats, including President Clinton. Ken Khachigian, Dole's California strategist, said Saturday, however, that the GOP presidential campaign has not yet decided how much emphasis it will put on the issue.

Khachigian has spent the last few days trying to calm jittery Republicans, whose fear about Dole's commitment to the state was heightened again this week when a poll said President Clinton was leading the race by 22 points. The Republican campaign was also rocked Thursday by the resignations of two top Dole strategists.

Khachigian assured reporters and delegates that Dole has already committed to spend nearly $2 million on television advertising in the state through the end of September. Like Herrington and other state officials, he also insisted that the race is still winnable in California.

But from the podium, most officials made little effort to whoop up enthusiasm for the presidential campaign.

Instead of Dole or vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, who had once been expected to speak at the convention, the national campaign was represented in a dinner speech by Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Meanwhile, at a luncheon, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, Dole's campaign co-chairman in California, never mentioned the presidential candidate's name in his brief remarks to about 500 delegates.

Instead, Lungren identified a different set of stakes for the party to consider. Today, he noted, California has more Republican members in Congress than at any other time in the state's history; Republicans control the Assembly for the first time in 25 years and five of the state's seven constitutional offices are held by the GOP.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who serves with Lungren as Dole co-chairman in California, also addressed Republicans, saying, "If you have friends who somehow doubt whether this election really makes a difference . . . just tell them to take a look at what we have accomplished by sending just a few more Republicans to Sacramento."

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