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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Can Bush Pull a Reagan in California?

July 06, 1999|CATHLEEN DECKER

Something about California gives big-ticket Republicans the willies. Some presidential candidates seem uncomfortable with its ideological mutations as they grasp for a handhold in a state where testy issues like offshore oil drilling, understandably not a big deal in most places, can bubble to the surface.

Some bridle at the sheer distance of California from everywhere else that matters in presidential campaigns, like the perennial slugfest that is the industrial Midwest. Come to California and you're stuck for the day in California. But stay east, and, why, you can hit Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and maybe even Pennsylvania for dessert.

For all the in-state talk of powerhouse California, the stark reality is that the state hasn't mattered much in presidential terms in a decade. Not since 1988 has it been even contested. The decisions of the GOP candidates in 1992 and 1996 to bail from California in the general election have long festered among California Republicans.

So the none-too-subtle message from GOP front-runner George W. Bush last week was his promise to compete "vigorously" here, through November of 2000.

As the Texas governor put it at virtually every campaign stop: "I intend to be here a lot. . . . I intend to compete and win the general election in this state."

It was sweet music to the ears of California Republicans. Especially because the long season of sour notes was ushered in by none other than Bush's father, former President George Bush.

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The younger Bush met head-on both the difficulties before him and the blame that some Republicans here lay at his father's feet. Many still believe that the elder Bush in 1992, and subsequent presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996, cost them victories in races lower on the ballot those years.

No one was so brash as to suggest it publicly, but Bush himself brought up the subject at a Los Angeles press conference. He ruminated about the odds in California, given that Democrats have swamped Republicans here in the last two presidential elections and, most recently, in the 1998 gubernatorial contest.

"It's going to be hard," he acknowledged. "In 1992, there was a great man running for president but he didn't compete very hard out here in California. I think it began to hurt the [state] party.

"And Sen. Dole as well didn't wage as vigorous a campaign as I intend to do, and I think that dispirited the party somewhat. The [state] party has felt somewhat neglected by the national ticket, which has made it hard for the party to feel invigorated."

Promises made in 1999 will be easily forgotten if the electoral calculus requires Bush to be elsewhere in the fall of 2000. But for now, he was making all the right moves in California.

GOP conservatives, or a good chunk of them, seemed enthusiastic about his chances and his conservative bent. Party moderates could take heart at his embrace of Latinos and women, two groups whose discontent has hamstrung Republicans here.

He hammered daily on the subject of education, which ranks as the issue of highest concern to Californians of all parties, and boasted of the improvements by Texas students under his watch.

Bush also made visible inroads among groups usually partial to Democrats: the movie denizens of Hollywood, who deigned to meet with him, and the techies of the Silicon Valley, who gave him money.

Still untested, however, is whether Bush's appeal will move significantly beyond the GOP establishment and his admittedly massive donor base to the broad reach of California as the campaign wears on. And particularly as he bears the brunt of Democratic battering on such issues as gun control and abortion, where Bush's stands are far more conservative than California's.

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For Bush, the model in that regard is not his father but California's last home-grown president, Ronald Reagan. Republicans are fond of noting that Reagan's particular stances on issues were regularly more conservative than the views of those who voted for him. In the case of Reagan, personality trumped positions.

"Right now, times are good in California, and when times are good it's a personality state," said George Gorton, a longtime strategist for former Gov. Pete Wilson, the only Republican of late to break the GOP jinx on big races here. "And George Bush beats the hell out of Al Gore on personality."

So Bush's personality was on display here; his sunniness contrasted directly with the dour personas that have dominated Republican contests here in the past. "People want to follow somebody who's an optimistic soul," he explained at a La Jolla fund-raising breakfast.

There was reason enough for him to be optimistic. His chief California fund-raiser, Brad Freeman, recalled during a Tuesday night event that five short years ago, when Bush was running for his first term as governor, he held an exclusive, $250-a-plate fund-raiser that drew 25 people.

"The reason it was so exclusive," said a droll Freeman, "is that we couldn't get anyone else to attend."

Arrayed before Freeman at the Century Plaza Hotel were 2,000 Bush backers, each of whom had donated at least $1,000. It was the largest political gathering at the hotel in memory, dwarfing those held for Bush's father at the height of his popularity.

It may have powered the younger Bush's insouciance the next morning, when a reporter jabbed at him about whether he fit in with California's left-coast reputation.

"Maybe the state is not quite as liberal as you think," he shot back.

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