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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Bush Courts Usual GOP Bridesmaid California

But it probably will be the fall before the Texas governor decides whether to spend serious money campaigning in the state, which is what it takes to be a contender here.

August 13, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

His eye on November, George W. Bush trundled last week across the political no-man's land of Central California, where the votes that dictate victory in the state may well be cast. He found enthusiastic crowds, a willing partner in former rival John McCain and the gift of a well-timed poll showing him closing in on Democrat Al Gore.

Big deal, Democrats in California said.

Despite their candidate's propensity for fits and starts and his lagging fortunes nationally, California Democrats are a fairly optimistic bunch these days. Like a soothing antacid, the party's repetitive victories over the last decade have eased the worry that so often curdles the political stomach as election day approaches.

Fundamentally, Democrats control California. While reversals are not unheard of--the party was in the tank here as the 1990s opened--Democrats now have strategic advantages in this state that Bush will have to labor mightily to reverse.

"If the Gore campaign has to sweat California, it means the country doesn't look pretty good, period," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, a veteran of California campaigns.

"Bottom-line answer: No matter what [Republicans] do, short of winning a [national] landslide, it's not going to put California in play."

Gore's advantages, at many levels, have nothing to do with him. The state's demographics--particularly the rising importance of suburban and high-tech workers who tend toward moderation--have helped Democrats, as has the rise of more moderate party candidates. Minority voters, who have broadly favored the Democrats, also are inching up in importance.

Those elements have combined to elect a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators and a Democratic congressional delegation, Assembly and state Senate. The state's best-known Republican, of late, may be scandal-scarred former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, though hardly for reasons a politician would welcome. The only statewide elected Republican is the nearly anonymous Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Bush's assertions that he will contest the state right up to election day have been greeted with crossed fingers from Republicans here, who historically have not had the attention they relish from the top of the ticket. In 1992, President Bush--the current GOP candidate's father--abandoned California entirely as election day neared, a vacuum that thwarted Republican efforts lower on the ticket. Four years ago, GOP nominee Bob Dole made a last-ditch effort here but was so far behind nationally that it didn't register.

The Texas governor is clearly aware of the difficulties he faces in the state.

"In California, I've got to change the image of our party," Bush said in a June interview. "Some [voters] have opted out. They don't care about me. They don't come and campaign. . . . I'm trying to reconfigure the base somewhat."

Democrats contend that they already have taken into their fold the moderate and independent voters that Bush is trying to attract.

"We learned something from the '80s and '90s from Pete Wilson: How to attract moderate voters," said Kam Kuwata, a Democratic consultant and California campaign veteran.

Former Republican Gov. Wilson's formula was a mix of social moderation--he favored abortion rights, among other issues--and fiscal conservatism. While he left the governor's post in 1998 tainted politically by his efforts against illegal immigration, he remains the only Republican to win a Senate or gubernatorial race here since 1986. (At the presidential level, the last GOP victor was the elder Bush, in 1988.)

Unlike Wilson, however, current nominee Bush is socially conservative. On issues that have dominated California in recent campaigns--among them gun control, the environment and abortion rights--Gore's positions are closer to California's views than Bush's.

In California, Bush essentially has been running a personality-based campaign, ignoring those issues with which Californians find fault and emphasizing how his sunny optimism contrasts with the attitudes of past Republicans. He also has extended a fistful of olive branches to Latinos, who were put off the GOP by Wilson.

Much of Bush's crossover appeal is aimed not at Latinos, however, but at moderates and independents who in the last several elections have recoiled from Republicans because of their exclusive imagery. Those voters are largely suburban and white and vastly outnumber the state's Latino voters.

"The real audience is white suburbia," pollster Maslin said. "Most Californians . . . view the state as tolerant. It's in the Bush campaign's interest that they view Bush in that context, not as coldhearted."

A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed Bush doing well among the moderate target group, although Gore still narrowly led overall. The poll was, however, conducted mostly during the GOP convention, when Bush was presented in the best light.

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