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Rivals Revisit California After Long Absences

Campaign: Bush and Gore backers get into high gear after feeling left out. Both candidates also have an eye on congressional races.


The two major presidential contenders finally arrived in California this week after more than a month's absence, throwing phone banks into high gear, spurring on precinct walkers and creating ebullience among volunteers who had felt left in the doldrums since the political conventions.

The reports of a narrowing California race--despite being largely discounted by recent polls--had volunteers showing up in campaign offices that had been moribund.

Until this week, many Californians had the sense of being stranded outside a presidential campaign that pundits have called perhaps the greatest cliffhanger in four decades.

"Now, suddenly people are going, 'What the heck is going on? And what can we do?' " said Todd Tatum, an environmental consultant and the chairman of the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush arrived in California on Monday and led a fervid rally in Burbank before taping a segment on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and moving on to a rally in Fresno. As the Texas governor finished up with a San Jose appearance this morning, Vice President Al Gore was to arrive for a five-hour stopover, including a Westwood Village rally and his own taping of the Leno program.

The excitement in the political trenches was palpable, even though political professionals described the campaign stops as a mere feint in a campaign in which the decisive struggles are likely to occur in the Midwest and Florida.

They said the candidates arrived here at least as much to appear with Leno--whose nonthreatening questions and national audience are considered ideal--as in deference to the state's 54 electoral votes. They said it is unlikely either candidate will be back to California.

The candidates also hope to help tip the scales in half a dozen congressional races--most too close to call--that could determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the House of Representatives next year.

Polls continue to show that as many as 20 other states have closer presidential contests than California, where a San Francisco Examiner poll over the weekend showed Gore with a 10% lead.

Bush is scheduled to spend just over 24 hours in the state and Gore even less time. The Texas governor appeared at a Burbank hotel Monday afternoon, surrounded by posters for local Republican candidates, including Rep. James Rogan (R-Glendale), who is struggling to beat back a challenge by state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).

"The pundits, just like my opponent, are taking California for granted," Bush told the roaring throng at the Hilton Hotel. "California is going to go Bush-Cheney."

After taping the Leno program, Bush spoke to thousands of supporters at the Fresno Convention Center. This morning, his California swing is to end in the Silicon Valley. Bush hopes to give a boost there to Republican Jim Cunneen in a close race to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Senate candidate Tom Campbell.

Gore's visit with Leno this evening and a campaign rally at Weyburn and Broxton avenues in Westwood Village at 6:30 p.m. will be the only two stops on the vice president's swing. He will be in California about 5 1/2 hours before flying to Orlando, Fla.

Both Democratic and Republican campaign regulars conceded the campaign stops are brief. But they said even scant attention is a boost for true believers who haven't seen the candidates in person here since late September.

Democratic leaders said that the mere suggestion that Bush had a chance in California stunned many party members, who had grown accustomed to victories like President Clinton's 13-point win four years ago and Gov. Gray Davis' nearly 20% blowout over state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in 1998.

At San Bernardino County Democratic headquarters, the phone has been ringing since the gap between Gore and Bush narrowed somewhat. Now 15 volunteers are working the phones and as many are in the field, compared to just four volunteers making phone calls a month ago.

Some Democratic offices, like the one in Fresno County, reported that a shortage of basic materials has finally been reversed. Before 1,000 Gore-Lieberman signs arrived this week, county party director Billie MacDougall had to buy 250 herself from a vendor.

"We had to have something. Our people were feeling neglected," MacDougall said. "I was having to buy my own signs, bumper stickers and buttons. Now we're getting more materials."

Hundreds of additional activists recently called to volunteer in Orange County, said Jeanne Costales, Democratic Party chairwoman.

"They're reacting to a sense that they're scared George W. Bush may become president," Costales said.

Republican leaders, in contrast, said they are benefiting from a sense of hope among activists that has been missing after years of bitter losses.

Volunteerism was down during President George Bush's reelection push in 1992, Bob Dole's run four years ago and Lungren's weak bid for governor in 1998.

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