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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

McCain Vows to Help Bush Battle for California

Campaign: Independent analysts cite Gore's lead, suggesting the state is out of the GOP's reach.

August 01, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — During the 1992 presidential campaign, then-President George Bush effectively ceded California to the Democrats as Bill Clinton swept to victory.

But this year, Bush's son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, hopes to blast out of the GOP convention here with a message to California: Republicans will fight, and fight hard, to win the state's 54 electoral votes.

The first shot is scheduled to come just before the Democratic National Convention in mid-August, when Bush and his former rival, Ariz. Sen. John McCain, make the state the site of their first joint campaign appearance.

The two will sweep through the state on a two-, possibly three-day, tour to try to vacuum up some of the independent voters whom McCain so successfully courted during the primaries.

"We are contesting California and believe we have every opportunity to win it," McCain said at a Monday morning press conference.

The question is, do Republicans really mean it? Although there is little doubt that the GOP wants to seem competitive in California, few public signs suggest they can be.

Most polls have shown Vice President Al Gore with a comfortable lead over Bush in the state, even at a time when Bush appears to hold a modest national lead. That suggests it would be very difficult for Bush to win the state in a close national election.

And the Republican state party has been all but shut out in the last few elections, with only one, Secretary of State Bill Jones, left as place holder.

"I don't think at this point that California is in play and I don't believe it will be," said Bruce Cain, head of UC Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies. "They have to be there, though not because they have good odds. It keeps Gore pinned down."

But Republican analysts point to a number of recent changes as proof that their effort is more than a head fake designed to make Gore spend precious campaign dollars.

Further evidence comes in the form of cash: In the last two weeks, the GOP has spent about $850,000 on air time in California, almost exclusively in three markets: Sacramento, San Diego and Fresno, according to independent analysts.

"I don't believe in this business of spending money to get the Dems to do something. Campaign money is too precious," said Karl Rove, Bush's strategist. "We like playing on the other guy's turf rather than defending our own. We'd rather spend our time in California forcing him to defend what he's got."

Political figures point to the success Bush has had in solidifying the Republican base, both in California and nationwide.

Whereas GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren won just under 80% of the Republican vote in 1998, Ken Khachigian, a veteran California political strategist, said he believes Bush will attract more than 90% of that vote in the state.

Bush has also made a strong pitch to Latinos, allowing him hopes of snatching some of those votes away from Gore.

The final piece of the puzzle to Bush's winning California is the independent swing voters who make up about 10% of the electorate.

That's where McCain comes in.

Exit polls showed McCain took 40% of independents in California's blanket primary, where all four major presidential candidates at the time went head to head. (Democrat Bill Bradley completed the quartet.)

McCain, who plans to campaign with Bush as many as 13 times between now and November, will portray Bush as a moderate reformer.

"There is no question that California is in play," asserted Khachigian, McCain's former advisor.

But Cain said he didn't believe McCain would bring much to the ticket. He pointed out that McCain's campaign swings through California during the primary season focused on attracting GOP conservatives.

As a result, the state's primary voters saw a different side of McCain than those in New Hampshire or Michigan, one that was more hard-edged, less centrist and less appealing.

"We never saw him," Cain said. "He didn't really get a chance [here] to tout his campaign finance reform and his independence."

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Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.

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