Bush unlikely to write off California despite discouraging prospects in key state

September 13, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- The news that President Bush would be campaigning in California over the weekend raised some eyebrows among the politicians here. This is, after all, a state in which Mr. Bush is running so far behind Democratic nominee Bill Clinton that the operative question seems to be whether the president is "writing off California."

In fact, Mr. Bush's campaign has committed itself to no fewer than six incursions into the state in the final eight weeks of the campaign. That is a schedule that could be reduced radically if it becomes apparent by, say, Oct. 1 that he is a sure loser here. But it is also one that clearly flies into the face of the "write off" scenario.

There is ample reason for the Republicans to be discouraged about their prospects here. Opinion polls, both private and published, show Mr. Clinton leading by at least 10 percent and as much as 20 percent. Even in Orange County, where Mr. Bush was to campaign today and where Republican presidential candidates expect 60 percent of the vote, the president is no better than even.

More to the point, the surveys show Mr. Bush with disapproval ratings of 45 percent and higher, approval at 30 percent and lower. Participants in focus groups make it clear there is a pervasive anger toward the president, fueled principally by the epidemic concern over the economy and the feeling Mr. Bush is out of his depth in dealing with it.

Mr. Clinton has a clear organizational advantage in the state -- an activist apparatus run by John Emerson, a young Los Angeles lawyer who already has demonstrated his credentials to run an effective statewide operation. While the Republicans concede they have made a late start organizationally, they find their candidates and surrogates cannot come into the state without being confronted by some competitive Democratic media events. Democratic officeholders are far more eager to ally themselves with the national ticket than four years ago.

The context is obviously not promising for the Republican president. The unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, two points above the national figure, and incumbents of all stripes are in disfavor after an extended brawl in Sacramento that paralyzed the state government. Mr. Bush, the preppy white-shoe Republican from Kennebunkport, has never been a comfortable fit with the laid-back California electorate. As the vice president to Californian Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush never had much opportunity to build a political base here.

So it is not surprising that professionals in both parties are talking about the Republicans conceding the 54 electoral votes that represent the single richest prize Nov. 3. "They've got to write it off," a leading Republican strategist not involved in the campaign said privately. "If they take those six dates away from Ohio or Michigan, they're crazy. Clinton's got a lock here."

The only reason for making any effort here, some Republicans contend, is to force Mr. Clinton to spend more of his time and treasure on the state than he otherwise would do.

Unsurprisingly, Marty Wilson, the Bush-Quayle campaign director for the state, takes a different view. New polls, he argues, have put Mr. Bush only 10 points behind, not much different from the national figures. "We're encouraged because they show him [Mr. Clinton] coming back to earth," he says.

If the race begins to tighten in the critical industrial states of the Midwest, Mr. Wilson contends, "California is going to receive a lot of attention" because it, too, will appear to be within range. "People in California like to beat their chests and say, 'We're different, we're different' but I don't think we are," he says.

This is the core of the argument over the whole idea of "writing off" big states. Although there are clear cultural differences between the electorate here and, for example, that in New

Jersey, there are more common concerns that come into play in this presidential campaign.

Put another way, it can be argued that if Mr. Bush makes a case that he has a coherent plan for the economy that is convincing in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, there is no reason to believe he cannot at least become competitive here. By the same token, if he cannot make such a case, he is likely to lose several of those Rust Belt states as well as California.

Beyond that, a de facto Bush surrender here obviously would spill over into neighboring states.

This is the way presidential elections are conducted in the television age. There are, to be sure, some clear differences in demographics that make some states predisposed to be Democratic or Republican. White voters in the South and the small states of the Far West, to cite the most obvious example, are more conservative on both political and social questions than those in New York or Massachusetts. But in the states that are considered genuine battlegrounds, the common issues seem to override the more distinctive parochial concerns.

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