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GOP Covets California, Cheney Insists

Campaign: The Republicans' vice presidential nominee seeks to allay fears within party that Bush will write off state. He calls it a 'very, very top priority.'


REDLANDS — Setting out on his first West Coast campaign swing, Dick Cheney, the Republican vice presidential nominee, sought Tuesday to ward off concerns in his party that George W. Bush will mount anything less than an all-out fight to win California.

"California is very important to us, or I wouldn't be here today," Cheney said during a campaign stop at a school on the edge of San Bernardino County.

Cheney's remarks came a day after Bush, the Republicans' presidential nominee, launched his biggest such advertising campaign so far in 21 states; California was not among them.

But Cheney downplayed the significance of California's absence from the list, saying the state is a "very, very top priority for us."

President Clinton won California in 1992 and 1996, and the state, with its 54 electoral votes, is crucial to Al Gore's strategy for winning the presidency this year. The Democratic nominee has consistently led Bush in polls of California voters.

But Bush's campaign is sensitive to the fears of GOP candidates for Congress and the state Legislature that he will abandon California the way his father, President Bush, did in 1992.

"It's safe to say that the rest of the [state] ticket really suffers when the top of the ticket is not competing," said Gerald Parsky, chairman of the Bush-Cheney California campaign.

So to prove the GOP ticket's commitment to winning California, Cheney hosted fund-raisers for the state Republican Party's Victory 2000 committee Tuesday night in Ontario and Upland and will be the star attraction of two more today near Santa Barbara. Cheney will also campaign today in Bakersfield.

Bakersfield is heavily Republican, while the other stops on Cheney's California tour are known as swing areas with some significant pockets of Republicans.

Cheney kicked off his tour of California and Oregon at the Kingsbury Elementary School in Redlands. He and his wife, Lynne, joined a third-grade class in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and visited fourth-graders in a computer lab.

Education, the centerpiece of Bush's efforts to recapture moderate swing voters who supported Clinton, is the prime focus of Cheney's West Coast tour. He told a group of GOP supporters and school officials that high standards and local control over education are among his top priorities.

"Money isn't always the answer to all of our problems," he said. "We've got some good examples around the country where failing systems spend twice as much per student as you spend here at Kingsbury."

He added, however, that schools also need the proper resources to succeed and that Bush has pledged to increase education spending.

Outside the school, about 20 protesters dispatched by the state Democratic Party greeted the candidate with chants of "Go home, Dick."

Bob Mulholland, a Democratic campaign advisor, said Cheney, an opponent of gun control and abortion rights, is too conservative to help the GOP ticket in California. He called him "red meat for the right wing."

But U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said Cheney could appeal to voters in swing areas like the Inland Empire and the Central Valley.

"If you take issues like gun control to the hinterlands here in San Bernardino County or Riverside County, the places where there's still lots of undecided votes, those people may be more conservative than Dick Cheney is on this issue," he said.

Lewis said the race in California will be "very close, particularly because the inclusiveness theme very much fits this mix of suburban California."

He pointed to a group of Latino, black and Asian schoolchildren.

"Look at this student population here," he said. "I mean it is Americana, and George Bush's highest priority is to go out there and reach to those populations."

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