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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Endless Bad News Frays the Nerves of State's GOP

September 21, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It wasn't supposed to be this way for Republicans in California. Not this year. Not again. Not with George W. Bush heading the ticket.

Bush was going to be the hottest candidate since Ronald Reagan. He had charisma. Could excite the activists. Attract new voters. Liven a dying party.

Boost Republican nominees for Congress and the Legislature.

Now look!

Bush appears to be on a slow slide downhill--as has the GOP in California since 1996; in some respects, even before that. (It lost a U.S. Senate seat in 1992 and forfeited our presidential electoral votes without a fight.)

One year ago, the Texas governor was running 5 points ahead of Vice President Al Gore in this state, according to pollster Mark Baldassare of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. By January, Gore had caught Bush. In early August, Gore led by 3 points. Now Baldassare's latest poll--one that mirrors a private survey by GOP pollster Steve Kinney--shows Gore leading by 9.

The bad news doesn't stop there.

Even with a broken leg, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is running far ahead of her GOP opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell (17 points).

Baldassare thinks he's found evidence of Gore coattails: Voters say by a 9-point margin--the same lead enjoyed by the vice president--that they'll vote for the Democrat over the Republican in their congressional race.

Moreover, voters overwhelmingly approve of how the Democratic-controlled Legislature is handling its job (56%-31%).

All this is making Republicans very nervous. Despite Bush's promise to spend time and money in California, they fret that he'll pull out and focus on more winnable swing states, leaving GOP candidates here to fend for themselves.

"The nervousness is discouraging the troops," says GOP consultant Richard Temple. "It's like the loser syndrome. You're used to losing, so you expect to lose."

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The anxiety could be felt at a Republican state convention last weekend in Palm Springs.

"What's going on with Republicans right now is, they're confused and somewhat in disarray because this race has flipped [nationally] in such a short period of time," said veteran GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum, who monitors congressional and legislative races for his publication, the Target Book.

Hoffenblum estimates that Bush's vote total in a contested congressional district must be in the mid-40s for the local Republican to win. An embattled candidate can run only about six points better than the presidential ticket, he figures.

A handful of hard-fought California congressional races could determine which party controls the next House of Representatives. And that may well be this state's biggest impact on the November elections.

GOP congressional candidates aren't hurting for campaign cash. But their party colleagues running for the Legislature definitely are scraping. Never "in modern history" have Republicans been at such a funding disadvantage, Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga told the convention. He said Democrats collectively will outspend the Senate GOP by about 5 to 1.

"I need $3 million just to hold the seats we have, and I don't think I can get it," he told me. Senate Democrats now outnumber Republicans 25 to 15.

In the Assembly, Republicans hold only 32 of the 80 seats, but will be satisfied just to hang onto those. Minority Leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach projects that Assembly Republicans also will be outspent 5 to 1.

This isn't all Bush's fault. He has raised $8.5 million for the state GOP, Brulte reports. The funding disparity is largely because Democrats control virtually everything--the Legislature, the governor's office, the White House.

"Contributors like to give to winners," observes Darry Sragow, chief strategist for Assembly Democrats. "And voters like to vote for winners."

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And if Bush doesn't win? Blame picking a dud for a running mate rather than Arizona Sen. John McCain. Also credit his childish debate over debates, foolish attack on Gore's character and allowing the Democrat to frame the issues argument. Plus prosperity.

"We don't have an angry electorate that wants to throw the bastards out," notes GOP consultant Sal Russo.

And, declares Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book: "Republicans rejected John McCain. They can't reject a guy who gives them creditability on the character issue and then try to run on character."

Sure, there's time for all this to change. But Bush must shift direction and Gore needs to stumble. Otherwise, that loser syndrome is only going to get worse.

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