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Benefits of California Visit by Bush Debated

Looking to the next presidential election, analysts see a push for 'mileage' from Iraqi war.

May 01, 2003|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Recent polls would suggest that President Bush is showing sudden strength in California, long a state unfriendly to Republican presidents. One survey found that if the 2004 election took place now, Bush would win 45% of the vote, compared with 40% for whomever the Democrats nominate.

But a poll is just a snapshot of public opinion at any given moment. And as Bush begins a quick trip to the state today, analysts deliver a mixed message on the potential political benefits of his visit.

On one hand, they say, showing the presidential flag every now and then in California can't hurt.

"He's doing what he needs to do politically to get the most mileage he can out of the victory [in Iraq] and remind voters about his strengths -- foreign policy and homeland security," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar in the school of policy, planning and development at USC. "It's time for him to hit the West Coast."

But many political analysts remain skeptical that Bush ultimately will be in any better position to carry the state next year than he was in 2000. In that campaign, he spent roughly $20 million in California, visited the state several times and still was overwhelmed by Democrat Al Gore, 54% to 42%.

"He'll carry California [in 2004] -- if he carries 46 or 47 other states," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of the state's legislative and congressional elections.

Bush's own travel schedule would suggest the White House continues to view California as distant -- politically as well as geographically.

President Clinton visited the state an average of once every six weeks during his two terms; Bush has been showing up barely more than once every six months. His most recent stop was Aug. 24, 2002.

His visit today will be his sixth to the state as president. By comparison, he has made 16 trips to Pennsylvania, 14 to Florida, 10 to Missouri and nine to Michigan -- all now viewed as crucial battlegrounds in next year's race.

Bush narrowly carried Florida and Missouri in his razor-thin win in 2000, and to win reelection he almost assuredly needs to hold onto those states. To remove some of the suspense that marked the 2000 race, he also would like to add Pennsylvania and Michigan to his column.

A switch of 22,000 votes in four other states that Bush lost to Gore -- Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin -- would have given him an additional 30 electoral votes, making the contested recount in Florida irrelevant. If the outcome of the 2004 campaign appears close, it is in these and a few other states that Bush can be expected to spend most of his time and money -- not California, Quinn said.

But if Bush appears on the verge of a national landslide, Quinn added, he can be expected to make a push for California's 55 electoral votes. No Republican candidate has achieved that prize since 1988, when Bush's father won it in his nationwide victory over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.

"In the San Francisco Bay area, there's a large, fundamentally generic anti-Bush population," Quinn said. Bush can overcome that opposition only with a bigswelling of support reflected across the country, he said.

Although his current California visit stretches over two days, Bush is scheduled to spend only a few hours in the state.

He is set to land around midday at the North Island Naval Air Station and head immediately to sea: He will tour the Abraham Lincoln as the aircraft carrier speeds toward San Diego. Tonight, before an audience of sailors and Marines returning from duty in the war with Iraq, he plans to deliver a speech --broadcast nationally live from the deck -- on the end of the military phase of the operation.

The president will spend the night aboard the ship, but he plans to fly off before the Lincoln reaches port on Friday so his presence -- and the security surrounding him -- does not distract from family reunions.

Bush is set to visit a defense plant in Santa Clara on Friday. The stop will give him an opportunity to talk about his efforts to promote economic growth -- primarily through a proposed tax cut plan -- while surrounded for a second day by reminders of U.S. military prowess.

"He really is trying to tie the issue of the economy to the issue of defense and homeland security," Jeffe said. "If it's the economy alone, he really will hurt. But if he can remind people how good he's been on homeland security and defense, it will mute the economy" as a political issue.

Democrats say they are looking forward to the prospect of Bush trying to make a go of it in California. Given the president's economic and environmental policies, they say, it is not likely to be friendly territory.

They repeatedly cite U.S. Department of Labor figures showing that the state has lost 363,200 jobs since Bush took office.

In addition, Bush has fought the state's toughened air-pollution regulations and his administration had advanced a plan to conduct heavy logging in parts of two Northern California forests.

Although a statewide Field Poll completed about two weeks ago gave Bush the 5 percentage-point margin over an unspecified Democratic nominee, Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor to the state Democratic Party, compared this President Bush's standing in the state with that of the previous President Bush.

A poll in June 1991, he said, found 56% of Californians supporting the elder Bush's reelection. "Looks like one-termer Bush Sr. had better ratings after the Gulf War than his son currently has," Mulholland said in an e-mail to reporters.

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