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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ CATHLEEN DECKER

Bush's California Problem

March 28, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER

In politics as in real estate, location is everything. So some Republicans responded with barely masked panic to the word last week that unofficial presidential nominee George W. Bush was boarding up his California headquarters.

Visions of 1992 and 1996 ricocheted through their minds, nightmares of GOP nominees who threw in the towel early and doomed themselves and lower-ticket Republican candidates to defeat. Never mind that the Bush campaign had closed all of its other state offices, in an effort to save money and consolidate workers. This was California, the big tamale, where only last year party leaders had swooned over Texas Gov. Bush when he vowed to campaign hard here through November.

Its eyes opened to the symbolism, the Bush campaign reversed course and announced that the Los Angeles office would remain open, albeit with an all but invisible staff. The reversal was meant "to send a signal, to say California is important to our campaign," said Bush spokesman Mindy Tucker.

Richie Ross, a Democratic consultant who rarely minces words, was having none of it.

"Bush will assert all summer long that he's coming here, everyone will say it's going to happen, and he'll come here for a couple of weeks in September and then leave," he said. "He's just not positioned right here."

That is the Democratic Party's fondest hope, a Bush retreat along the lines of those executed by Bob Dole in 1996 and Bush's father--then-President George Bush--in 1992.

This year, concern over Bush's intentions has been fed by the recent strength of Democratic nominee-in-waiting Al Gore. National polls show the general election race tightening to a draw--and some show slight Gore leads. Gore beat Bush, by a substantial 35%-28% margin, in California's March 7 popular vote. And Bush's positions on a handful of signature issues--like abortion rights, gun control, tobacco and the environment--are similar to those that helped doom the 1998 GOP gubernatorial nominee, Dan Lungren.

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In theory, a national campaign is run everywhere. In reality, there is just not enough money to do that. A candidate has to pick his shots. As it stands now, Gore is doing well in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast. Bush is strong in much of the South and the Rocky Mountain region. That leaves the traditional battleground of the upper Midwest, a line of states from Illinois to Pennsylvania, up for grabs.

The central question for California Republicans is this: If Gore continues to run strongly in California, will Bush still spend money here that could reap more rewards elsewhere?

The candidate himself has been unequivocal. "I intend to be here a lot. . . . I intend to compete and win the general election in this state," he said in his initial foray here last year. He will be raising money and shaking hands here next month, spokeswoman Tucker said.

If Bush actually runs to win here--as opposed to feinting, to force Gore to spend money and time in California--he has only to look to his family tree for guidance.

The last Republican to win California in a presidential election was Bush's father, in 1988. For a non-Californian, his campaign that year had high-level managers familiar with the state and its fiscally conservative, socially libertarian bent: His chief of staff, Craig Fuller, was a Californian, and media advisor Roger Ailes had worked on the 1986 reelection of Gov. George Deukmejian. And his South Carolina-bred chief strategist, Lee Atwater, was fascinated by the workings of a state so foreign to a son of the South.

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Atwater, who died before the unsuccessful reelection campaign, would peel off from the 1988 effort to hang out at a favorite listening post--the Venice pier. After one strategy session in Los Angeles, he told Bush's major California backers that he'd be unreachable for the next week.

"He rented a car and went up and down the state, hanging out in bowling alleys and Denny's. . . . He drove and talked to people," said Steve Merksamer, a former Deukmejian chief of staff who chaired the elder Bush's 1988 state steering committee. The result: heightened independence for the California crew, including television commercials tailored for voters here.

In California as elsewhere, the elder Bush succeeded in portraying his Democratic counterpart, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as too liberal for the state. Strategists say that his son's hope lies in painting Gore with the same brush.

"If Bush is the centrist and Gore is the left wing, Bush wins," said Merksamer. "If Gore is the centrist and Bush the right wing, Gore wins."

History offers a sober, if conflicting, assessment. In the 10 presidential, gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races run here since 1988, only two Republicans have been successful--President Bush in 1988 and Pete Wilson in the 1990 and 1994 governor's races. While that might suggest that the younger Bush take off for the Midwest and leave California to Gore, pollster Mark Baldassare offers this caution: In 22 of the last 25 presidential elections, the candidate who won California also won the presidency.

"If the Republicans decide to write off California, I think they're taking a chance," Baldassare said. "They're saying they can ignore past history."

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