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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Bush's Embrace of California: Blunder or Brilliant Move?

November 06, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Win or lose in California, George W. Bush did what he promised to do: compete seriously in this state. Not leave Republicans high and dry--as his father did eight years ago.

Rather, it was Al Gore who virtually abandoned California, taking for granted its 54 electoral votes--one-fifth the number needed to win the presidency.

We'll soon know which candidate played it smart: Bush, in honoring his commitment to antsy California Republicans, or Gore, in focusing his resources on states that polls showed were more competitive.

If Bush loses the presidency because he was barely beaten in some battleground states after having squandered $12 million on California TV ads, he'll wake up Wednesday feeling foolish. However, if the Republican nominee wins nationally, he'll look both honorable and farsighted for having laid the foundation for a strong reelection base in the nation's most politically potent state.

Moreover, if Bush should pull an upset in California and--as a result--deny Gore the White House, it'll be the inattentive Democrat who will be ridiculed eternally for having made a colossal blunder.

"Somebody's going to be a genius and somebody's going to be a goat," notes Garry South, Gov. Gray Davis' chief political strategist. "It ain't going to be pretty."

Over the weekend, Democratic strategists confidently predicted that Gore, at least, will carry California. His lead in private polls varied from 6 to 10 points. Ralph Nader--Gore's rival for liberal votes--was slipping. Republican pols still regarded a Bush upset as possible, but not probable.

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When Bush began running in early 1999, California Republicans viewed all GOP presidential aspirants with suspicion. And for good reason.

In 1992, then-President George Bush surrendered the state to Bill Clinton in mid-September, pulling out his money and never showing up again. With no top-of-the-ticket effort, the election was a party disaster. Democrats won two U.S. Senate races, and gained strength in the U.S. House delegation and state Assembly.

In 1996, Republican Bob Dole did compete here, but generated little enthusiasm and spent about one-third what George W. Bush now is.

"Bush made it clear he was serious about winning California," recalls state Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, an early backer of the Texas governor.

Brulte said Bush equated California to El Paso, which no Republican gubernatorial candidate had ever carried. But Bush was determined to carry it and finally did when he won reelection.

Not only did Bush fixate on California, Brulte says, but practically all the money he raised in the state was spent here--perhaps $25 million. That's unprecedented in a state that national politicians use as an ATM.

Says Bush's California chairman, L.A. investor Gerry Parsky: "He told me it was a mistake to have written off the state in the past and he was committed."

Democratic pols and media pundits snickered skeptically. All this was a head fake, they theorized, to trick Gore into needlessly spending time and money out here. At crunch time, Bush would disappear.

But last week--crunch time--Bush made his 10th trip to California since the March primary, stumping south and north.

Addressing cheering thousands in Fresno, Bush shouted: "Tell the folks in Fresno that George W. came, looked ya in the eye and said, 'I want your vote.' I wonder if the vice president's going to bother to come to this important part of your state. . . . " (Boooo)

Not hardly.

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Three weeks ago, Gov. Davis and his political team sounded the alarm as their polls showed Bush creeping up in California. "Some nights," South says, "Bush was even or actually ahead."

Gore insiders, however, suspected that Davis merely was trying to scare the candidate into spending time and money in California to bolster the turnout for Proposition 39, his measure to reduce the vote requirement for local school bonds. "That's ludicrous," South responds angrily.

Gore never bought TV spots, but he did fly to L.A. and held one rally. Aides said the trip's real purpose, however, was to appear on the Jay Leno "Tonight Show"--not to meet with California voters. "That made me wince," South says.

Meanwhile, Bush's efforts have cranked up Republicans and this is likely to help GOP congressional candidates. That's one of Bush's motivations--along with affecting the national polls, which are significantly influenced by California and have a psychological impact.

Bush also must know that no Republican has won the White House without carrying California since James A. Garfield in 1880. Of course, on Tuesday he has a good shot at breaking that string.

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