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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

TV Ad Campaign Has Been Turned Off

September 26, 2000

Six weeks from the day the next president will be elected, Bob Mulholland should be in staccato mode, phone-calling and e-mailing and drumming nervously around the state. Not this year. This year, he is easy to find, in his Sacramento office.

"I feel like the Maytag repairman," laments a good-natured Mulholland, the state Democratic Party's chief advisor, evoking the image of that lonely soul awaiting the ring of the telephone.

The numbers tell why: According to polls, Democrat Al Gore is up to a dozen points ahead of Republican George W. Bush in California. Between June and the second week of September, according to estimates by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, Bush and the Republican Party spent $1.1 million on television commercials in California. This in a state where, to get noticed at all, you have to fork over about $2 million a week.

But they had nothing on the Democrats. Gore and the Democratic Party, the survey said, spent a princely $100 on television in their pursuit of California's vote. Asked about the amount, Mulholland was quick to issue a correction. Turns out the Democrats haven't spent $100 on television since June. They've spent even less:



In other states, the candidates' ads are on television more than Regis. In California, the dearth of commercials signals that, once again, the state probably will be an afterthought in the presidential race. Not that it's unimportant, mind you, but simply unlikely to be the center of action because of Gore's substantial lead.

That is particularly frustrating to Republican organizers, still feeling bereft because the nominee's father, former President George Bush, abandoned the state months before the 1992 election. So, since his first trip here as the nominee, the Texas governor has promised to campaign--"vigorously"--until election day. He has regularly shown up, arriving most recently Monday night and planning to promote his education plan today and Wednesday.

Beyond Bush's presence, however, the pledge to compete here has not yet been fulfilled on the airwaves, where California elections are usually won or lost. And that is why Mulholland and others integral to political campaigns are still sitting around waiting.

"Whattaya call it, the non-campaign?" barked one Republican campaign veteran, talking about the absence of battle on the state's television sets. "I have yet to see one Bush ad."

To see one, particularly in Los Angeles, you have to look quick.

The Bush campaign itself has not spent a penny on television here. Even as the candidate repeatedly appeals to Latinos--a message meant to connect him as well with moderate whites--his campaign's Spanish-language ad is running in New Mexico and Florida. Not here.

While the candidate spends his money elsewhere, the task of convincing California has been left to the Republican National Committee. Officials there say that two ads touting Bush are running in Sacramento, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Luis Obispo, San Diego and on cable outlets in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The total spent since June has now exceeded $2 million, officials said.

Still, the RNC-generated ads that attempt to do the most damage to Gore are running in up to 17 "battleground" states--but not in California. The milder ads that have run are isolated to less expensive parts of the state--omitting network affiliates in the biggest markets, Los Angeles and San Francisco. That tells media experts that the Republicans are merely feigning interest here.

It appears to them that Bush is trying to spend enough money in California to quell criticism, but not the multimillions it would take to really compete.

"The thing Bush is trying to avoid is the press going out and saying he's taking a pass on California," said a media executive familiar with the campaign's ad buys.


Bush is, no doubt, feeling pressure from all sides. Influential Republicans here, who gave him more money than any state other than Texas, want him to fight to the end. National partisans want him to help candidates in the contested congressional races here, whose outcome may dictate the balance of power in the House.

But every time he sets off for California, a chorus of critics sings: Why there? Why not Ohio, or Michigan, or Missouri, or Pennsylvania, or Florida? Why not somewhere where the polls are closer?

The reality is that, in the arena that matters, Bush's campaign is going where it counts. The study that pegged GOP spending in California at $1.1 million showed that five times more money--$5.8 million--had been spent in the cheaper television markets of Pennsylvania. In Ohio, $4.5 million had been spent; in Florida, $5.2 million.

Democrats and some Republicans expect that trend to continue because of basic electoral math: Bush could win the presidency without California. So why spend money here that might buy him more help elsewhere?

Bush campaign officials insist the Republican nominee will fight here until election day. To that, Bob Mulholland laughs the laugh of a man who has a lot more time on his hands that he expected.

"This is a striptease that everybody sees through," he said.

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