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Bush Pumps Up Crowds as He Prepares to Meet Governor-Elect

The president, on his way to Asia, makes stops in California. He will talk with Schwarzenegger today.

October 16, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

President Bush swept through California on Wednesday in advance of his first meeting today with the state's governor-elect, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose victory the White House hopes might signal a Republican resurgence in the state.

Bush will meet with Schwarzenegger privately in Riverside, then publicly when the president delivers a speech in San Bernardino.

"I understand there have been a couple changes here in California since the last time I was here," Bush told a boisterous crowd of 700 campaign donors at the Riverside Convention Center on Wednesday evening. "Tomorrow at the Mission Inn, I have the opportunity to congratulate the governor-elect of the great state of California. And I'm looking forward to it."

Earlier in the day, the president had courted Latinos at a Mexican foods plant in the San Joaquin Valley and attended a fund-raiser in Fresno. Bush aides said he had collected nearly $1.8 million for his reelection bid.

"I tell you what we're doing here tonight -- we're laying the groundwork for what is going to be a great national victory in 2004. And I appreciate you being on the team," Bush said in Riverside.

Few protesters were visible in Fresno, but the sounds of an anti-Bush rally in Riverside were audible in the convention center as the president spoke.

Banging drums and waving signs critical of the war with Iraq, a crowd that police estimated at 350 to 500 people marched from the steps of the county courthouse to the convention center.

When the president was scheduled to take the podium, the protesters staged a mock mass death in front of television cameras from local news stations.

Dozens of city police officers and Riverside County sheriff's deputies stood between the protesters and the convention center, and were backed up by dozens more officers on motorcycles.

No arrests were reported.

Acting on directions from the Secret Service, Riverside police closed down a corridor of the busy Main Street pedestrian mall at 2 p.m., angering some small-business owners.

The president's California trip, planned long before the state's historic gubernatorial recall election was called, was a stopover as Bush heads off on a nine-day trip to Asia that will start Friday in Japan.

After the recall, the California trip took on new political significance for Bush.

The White House has welcomed Schwarzenegger's victory in the recall election, with the hope that the former bodybuilder can rebuild the Republican Party in California and perhaps even deliver its electoral votes to the president in November 2004.

But at the same time, the Hollywood megastar and political novice poses potential problems for the Bush administration.

That may be one reason that the two men agreed their meeting in Riverside would be private, with only an official presidential photographer present to record it.

The president and governor-elect will then travel together to San Bernardino, where Bush will deliver a speech on terrorism at the California-Radisson Hotel and Conference Center.

"This is a courtesy visit," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "You shouldn't look at it as having a formal agenda."

The relationship nearly got off on the wrong foot when Schwarzenegger used his first news conference as governor-elect to say he would seek special "favors" from Bush to help balance the state's budget.

That put the White House on the spot.

As much as the president may want to help California, he has little leeway at a time when the federal budget is heading toward a $500-billion deficit and many other states face similar financial woes.

Another potential problem for Bush is that Schwarzenegger, like many Hollywood Republicans, tends to be moderate or liberal on hot-button social issues, such as abortion rights and gay rights.

For all his national celebrity, incautious words from Schwarzenegger risk upsetting Bush's more conservative core constituency, especially in other parts of the country.

The Schwarzenegger camp, for its part, moved Wednesday to lower expectations for his discussions with Bush.

"The governor-elect will go into the meeting with the sole objective of building a personal relationship with the president to create a basis and foundation for working together," a top Schwarzenegger aide said. "There will be no specific requests made, no list of items presented at the meeting. Nor do we anticipate that the president will deliver anything specifically."

In the Fresno-area farming community of Dinuba, Bush told employees of Ruiz Foods, most of them Latino, that he was working to increase homeownership among minorities: "We need to be an ownership society in America.

"Even though homeownership is at near-record highs, we've got too many of our fellow citizens who happen to be minorities who don't own a home," Bush said.

During the fund-raiser in Riverside, local Republican Party leaders called Schwarzenegger's win a sign that Bush can win the heavily Democratic state.

Former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who is considering running against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) next year, said: "Today you are looking at a very different state. I think he has a great chance."

Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) was less optimistic about Bush's prospects in California, but still held out hope.

"I think his chances are good, but I would not say they are great," he said.

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Hugo Martin, Lance Pugmire, Seema Metha and Kristina Sauerwein contributed to this report.

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