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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Democratic Gurus See Silver Lining in a Tighter Race

October 19, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Close doesn't mean exciting. Not necessarily. Al Gore and George W. Bush are running neck and neck across the country, but that doesn't mean the spectators are thrilled.

It's like one of those dot races they flash on the big screen at a stadium--close, but eye-glazing.

What's more, in California the race hasn't seemed all that close. Gore has had double-digit leads--13 points in the latest independent Field poll. It has been closing up in the last two weeks--into the 6- to 9-point range in private polls. And, ironically, many Democratic strategists here don't mind the tightening.

They are worried, but not about Gore losing California. That's highly unlikely, they believe, and if he did, it would be symptomatic of a Bush national landslide.

No, what they're worried about is that Gore has been so unexciting to Democratic-prone voters--even repulsive to some--that these people will stay home election day. And this would damage Democratic candidates in tight congressional and legislative races--and suppress the vote for Proposition 39, the high-stakes measure to lower the vote requirement for local school bonds.

However, a competitive presidential race in California could generate more Democratic votes, the gurus note. It might even prod the vice president into actually campaigning--maybe even spending TV money--in a must-win state he has been taking for granted.

"The visits of Gore and [Joe] Lieberman have been largely fund-raising visits," laments Garry South, chief political advisor for Gov. Gray Davis, the vice president's honorary California chairman.

Westside L.A. and the Silicon Valley--Democratic ATM machines. Meanwhile, Bush and Dick Cheney have been working over the Central Valley with real campaigning and TV ads. Consequently, the Republican ticket has moved into a double-digit lead there, according to one private poll.

"In all fairness and candor," South says, "the Republicans have done a better job in terms of the geopolitics of California than we have in this campaign. . . .

"Anyone who says this race hasn't closed up in California is kidding themselves."

*

As Davis' top strategist, South is an unpaid advisor to the Gore campaign. He publicly jumped all over the Democratic nominee at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon Tuesday, criticizing him for not attacking Bush's record as governor of Texas, particularly during the second presidential debate.

But, somebody asked, wouldn't Gore then be accused of negative campaigning? "Yes, but so what!" replied South, a political hard-baller. "If you want to have joint appearances on Oprah, have joint appearances on Oprah! This is serious stuff. . . .

"We're at a critical juncture here, where there has to be some serious recalibration of what we're doing or we're in trouble."

Wednesday, after the third debate, South lauded Gore for "a pretty strong performance" and added: "I just wish that had been the case in the first two debates . . . [Tuesday night] he was aggressive without being obnoxious."

Davis agreed. "I thought the vice president was strong, passionate and convincing," the governor said. "It was a much better performance than the second debate. . . .

"In the second debate, both candidates were stumbling over themselves trying to agree with one another and all the differences got kind of mushed up. This time there were some clear dividing lines."

But no Democratic pro I talked to thought Gore excited anybody.

*

Davis has a lot riding on Prop. 39, which he is honchoing. A low Democratic turnout killed a similar measure in the March primary. But South says they'll have $30 million to spend, not only for TV but an extensive get-out-the-vote drive.

Still, Davis' pollster, Paul Maslin, says he's worried about turnout. Prop. 39's support is hovering in the low 50s, Maslin says. "There's a lot of ferment in the water. . . .

"I'll tell ya who we need out here--Bill Clinton. He's the only one who could get the Democratic base juiced up. . . . I worry right now about the state being ignored by the [Gore] campaign, with money being spent heavily by the other side."

California Republicans are pouring $1.5 million each week into Bush TV ads. GOP voters always have been more enthused about their candidate than Democrats are about Gore. California Republicans--weak and out of power--are a lot hungrier than Democrats.

But Democratic gurus--with glass-half-filled logic--theorize that the tighter polls and GOP commercials might remind ambivalent Democrats there is a presidential election and it's important. Even if the Democratic candidate often is easy to ignore--partly because he's ignoring California voters.

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