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In Race to Win, Calif. Can Be a Drag

Campaigns: In tough arena for underdogs, Bradley and McCain fail to connect with voters. State is too big, distracted and expensive.


On the final weekend before the presidential campaign's single biggest primary day, the candidates were galloping around the country in search of votes. But in California, they might as well have been running in place.

Despite millions of dollars in advertising and final in-state passes by the Republican candidates Sunday and today, the GOP and Democratic nominating races occupied roughly the same territory they have commanded for weeks.

Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, their parties' establishment princes, held firm leads within their own ranks against challengers John McCain and Bill Bradley, whose campaigns here were characterized more by lost opportunities than successes.

In California as elsewhere, the biggest opportunity was McCain's. According to analysts, the Arizona senator had huge potential here, particularly among the coastal Republicans who tend to be more moderate than their Central Valley peers. But McCain never concentrated much on that fertile ground.

Republican analyst Tony Quinn, echoing the comments of others, said McCain simply got off track here, losing his reformist message in the back-and-forth with the Texas governor about the religious right and campaign tactics.

McCain and his camp "got themselves off message," Quinn said. "I thought he would have had much more traction here."

The Democratic race, meanwhile, never got off the ground. Analysts had long seen evidence of weakness in support for Vice President Gore, but Bradley never came up with the themes to win over teetering Democrats.

"Bradley had his moment, but in the final analysis, he was not able to articulate a reason for the Democrats to abandon [Gore]," said Darry Sragow, a veteran state Democratic consultant.

A Grueling State for Underdogs

All told, the primary campaigns underscore a basic truth about California politics: Despite all the national nattering about the state's quirky image, it is immensely difficult for underdogs to mount a successful campaign. The place is too big, too expensive and too distracted from politics to allow most insurgent campaigns to succeed.

"California is obviously a huge nut to crack when you are the underdog campaign, the underfinanced campaign," Sragow said. "It's pretty hard to make something happen in California unless you focus entirely on the state."

That, of course, has not been possible. Since Bradley was defeated by Gore in New Hampshire a month ago, the former New Jersey senator has traveled from coast to coast, trying to build momentum somewhere. He spent days in Washington state, hoping for a bounce in last Tuesday's nonbinding primary--a hope that proved vain. Everywhere he has gone since then, he has faced plummeting poll numbers. A Los Angeles Times poll published last week showed him behind Gore by a 5-1 margin among California Democrats.

For the Republicans, California has taken a back seat to hand-to-hand combat in a succession of states after McCain's big win in New Hampshire: South Carolina, where Bush triumphed; Michigan, where McCain again upended Bush and Washington, where Bush cut off McCain's momentum for a second time.

The Times poll found Bush with a comfortable lead among California's Republican voters, 47% to 26%, and even McCain aides have stopped suggesting that he could win the 162 delegates at stake Tuesday.

But the California election is really two races in one: the delegate selection, to be determined by a party's voters; and the overall results, which will measure popularity but have no bearing on the delegate disbursement.

As the race closed in, McCain supporters remained hopeful that the senator could beat Bush in the popular vote by attracting enough Democrats and independents to offset Bush's lead among Republicans. At least, they argued, he would then have bragging rights.

Polls released last week showed Bush with a narrow lead over McCain in the popular vote. But McCain advisors were hoping that a combination of criticism over campaign ads touting Bush in New York and McCain's visits here today and Tuesday would boost the turnout of McCain voters.

McCain's schedule today includes stops in Santa Clara, at UCLA and in San Diego. Bush plans to visit San Diego, Long Beach and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

McCain senior advisor Ken Khachigian admitted that the campaign suffered last week, when it was embroiled in controversies about McCain's attacks on leaders of the religious right and on his refusal to attend a Los Angeles debate with Bush and the third GOP candidate, Alan Keyes.

"There's no question that there were a lot of distractions that made it difficult for us," Khachigian said. But, he added: "We have time to recover."

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