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State GOP Looks to Bush for Revival

After another dismal election showing in heavily Democratic California, Republican leaders say they need to retool their strategy in the state.


Perhaps no Republicans in America are more closely watching the outcome of the presidential contest than those in California. The stakes: More or less, survival.

On Tuesday, they suffered through another dismal election night--one that may have proved that recent Democratic victories here are no fluke. Although uncounted absentee ballots may tighten the races, Republicans in any case will have sustained glancing defeats here in the presidential contest, the race for the U.S. Senate and the battle for the congressional and legislative delegations.

The silver lining, Republicans here hoped Wednesday, was the possibility that a victory by George W. Bush nationally would bring with it four years of attention, money and grass-roots organization.

"If Bush is elected president, he will run the state party," said GOP demographer Tony Quinn. "If Bush loses, there won't be a Republican Party in California that matters."

Others were not quite so dour, but even State Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the architect of Bush's campaign here, hoped the results would force his party to rethink its approach.

"This is a Democratic state, and the Republicans have a lot of work to do to repair their image," said Brulte, who has sounded the same alarm for several years. "If Republicans are not prepared to talk to Californians about issues that Californians care about, then they are going to continue to lose elections."

Among many Republicans, Bush's failure to win California set off a nervous debate about what it takes for them to win a statewide race.

Bush, after all, ran a campaign tailored to California, emphasizing issues such as education and health care with broad appeal to the state's huge bloc of moderate voters. He strode straight down the middle of the ideological road, rarely discussing polarizing subjects such as abortion, gun control or school vouchers.

He spent millions on ads and made dozens of visits here, more of both than most Republicans or any Democrats predicted. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, spent no money and rarely visited.

And still, Bush lost. By late Wednesday, Gore was winning 54%-41%, although Secretary of State Bill Jones said the margin might diminish as uncounted absentee ballots were tallied.

Republicans on Wednesday were quick to shower Bush with praise for living up to his commitment to campaign in the state, saying that his money may have heightened the chances of some lower-ticket GOP candidates.

But it didn't quite work: Overall, Democrats appeared to have swept all five of the hottest congressional seats and picked up two slots in the Assembly. A Democratic state Senate candidate was leading his GOP rival in the Stockton area, although Republicans said they were confident they would ultimately hold onto that seat.

The Tuesday results showed that Republicans--even when they put consistent effort into enticing the Latinos and women who have voted strongly Democratic in this state--fell far short.

Gore's victory relied on strong showings in coastal areas of the state, where Democrats have lately built up huge advantages. All but six of the 21 counties carried by Gore touch water, either the Pacific or the inlets of San Francisco Bay.

Bush triumphed in inland California, from the Oregon border south through the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, along with Orange and San Diego counties. But his margins in the more populous counties were small and were not substantially bolstered by his bigger victories in rural areas.

Since Democrats began their mastery over California's statewide races several years ago, their key to success has been to straddle both political Californias, the socially liberal coast and its more conservative inland parallel. Gray Davis did so in the 1998 governor's race, reaching inland to counties on the Arizona and Nevada borders while still holding the coast.

On Tuesday, Democrat Dianne Feinstein did the same thing, finding success over her U.S. Senate opponent Tom Campbell with victories in every coastal county but three--Orange, San Luis Obispo and Del Norte--while winning the Inland Empire and several other inland counties.

In both of Tuesday's top-of-the-ticket races, that strategy concentrated Democratic support in voter-heavy areas and Republican strength in more sparely populated environs. Gore, for example, won only 21 of 58 counties, but led Bush by 1.2 million votes.

What concerned many Republicans on Wednesday was the strong resemblance among Davis', Feinstein's and Gore's victories. The two state Democrats won almost exactly the same turf, give or take two or so counties. Bush won slightly more turf, with small margins over Gore, but his similar standing with the other defeated GOP candidates worries some who see the divide hardening.

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