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Elections '96: A Voter Handbook | The Fight for Calfiornia:
Candidates for president, the Congress and the Legislature
are among those fighting for your attention and your
vote Tuesday. A look at the combatants.

GOLDEN STATE IN THE SPOTLIGHT : California Seen as Crucial to House Control

November 03, 1996|DAVE LESHER and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

And so, the final chapter in the story about Campaign '96 will be written in California.

Bob Dole, the man from Kansas who went to Washington, has placed his last hopes for the White House on voters in the Golden State. Equally important, experts say the choice between a Republican- or Democratic-run U.S. House could be determined late Tuesday night in the results from a few select California neighborhoods.

California's vote is considered so crucial in selecting the nation's leadership that political parties, candidates and special interests are spending a combined total of about $30 million to make their case in the final weeks alone. That's about $2 for every California voter.

"California is seen as the linchpin," said Jim Pinkerton, a GOP consultant in Washington. "Since the '60s--since candidate Nixon--the Sunbelt Republican strategy has depended on California."

In fact, if reelected, Bill Clinton and Al Gore will be the first presidential ticket without a Californian to carry the state as it wins a second term since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman did it in 1944.

But perhaps the most persuasive argument made for a major political blitz in California is in Congress. The outcome of about a dozen California races is so close that experts believe they could be decided by the local tilt on the presidential contenders.

It is the largest cluster of tossup races for Congress in the country. And they are scattered in nearly every corner of California.

Four pitched battles are in Los Angeles County--two for the vacancies left by a retiring Republican and a retiring Democrat. A pair of longtime veterans--one a conservative from Orange County and the other a liberal from San Bernardino--are in danger. On the coast, from Santa Barbara to the Bay Area to Eureka, three conservative incumbents are battling liberal challengers.

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The stakes are so high in these congressional races that some political observers believe Dole's final stand in California is really to benefit the House Republicans, not the slim hopes of the presidential campaign.

"The Dole campaign is reinforcing the Republican base," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "They are not going to win the state, but they are aiming to solidify the rest of the ticket and bring a higher voter turnout."

California has long been an uphill battle for Dole, according to opinion polls. Clinton has worked as hard as any president in history to win California's approval. His most recent California visit was his 29th as president--an average of about one stop every seven weeks he's been in office.

That attention might reflect the fact that political strategists believe a Democrat cannot win the White House if he is rejected by California. Traditionally, no other part of the country can be counted on to make up California's huge prize of 54 electoral votes--nearly one-fifth of the total needed for election.

Republicans rate California a slightly lower priority because of the GOP's strong base of support in the South. This year, however, Dole has found that Republican-friendly places such as Georgia and Florida are leaning to Clinton.

As a result, in the final campaign stretch, Dole strategists have put all their hopes in a come-from-behind bomb pass into the California end zone.

That decision was made final on Oct. 16. Seated around a starched-linen table at a closed restaurant overlooking the San Diego Marriott Hotel's afternoon sunbathers, the Dole campaign team from Washington talked strategy with the California Republican leadership--Gov. Pete Wilson, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and state party Chairman John Herrington.

Wilson repeated his belief that the key to winning California is to emphasize positions against illegal immigration and affirmative action. In both cases, the governor noted, Republicans are on the popular side of the issues and Democrats look defensive.

Within days, both issues moved to the forefront of the Republican strategy as speech topics and television commercials. Party leaders hope that the issues will also boost their candidates up and down the ticket. But so far, the congressional candidates tend to be running as free agents, stressing a variety of local and national issues.

In the otherwise little-noticed 10th District east of San Francisco Bay, Bill Baker, a two-term Republican from Danville, is being outspent 2 to 1 by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, a wealthy investment banker who last week dumped $1.4 million of her own money into her campaign. That brings her resources to about $2.1 million--about double Baker's campaign.

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The first woman ever to sit on the New York Stock Exchange, Tauscher has run an aggressive campaign denouncing Baker's conservative votes on social issues that critics say are out of step with his more moderate constituents. The lone conservative from the Bay Area, Baker is against abortion rights and the assault weapons ban--issues Tauscher supports.

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