LOS ANGELES -- On President Bush's latest visit to California, the highlight was a big rally in the Republican stronghold of Orange County -- "Reagan Country" it used to be called. Former President Ronald Reagan was on hand to give a helping hand to the man he put on the road to the presidency 12 years ago by picking him as his running mate.
Bush took due note of his benefactor's presence, mentioning his name in praise nearly a dozen times to the crowd's cheers. But the very fact that the president was appearing with Reagan in a part of the state that has gone Republican so overwhelmingly in the past spoke volumes about the uphill battle he faces here.
Marty Wilson, Bush's state campaign manager, says his campaign is holding the support of about 77 percent of California Republicans, only 8 percent less than Gov. Bill Clinton's backing among California Democrats. "I think we can make that up," he says.
But Clinton, he acknowledges, is running well ahead among independents as well. And without the Reagan Democrats and independents who helped Bush carry California by a mere 3 percent over Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush will have no chance to win the state that this year awards 54 electoral votes -- 20 percent of the 270 it takes for a majority and election.
The latest Los Angeles Times poll, which has Clinton running a colossal 21 points ahead in California, also finds that three-fourths of Democrats who voted for Reagan in 1984 now say they will return to the Democratic fold for Clinton. One in six Republicans and one in four self-described conservatives say they will vote for the Democrat -- all dismal indications for the incumbent here.
A further measure of Bush's plight is seen in voter registration in Orange County since the beginning of June. Democrats outregistered Republicans by 6,000 voters, and while Republicans still hold a huge 53 percent to 34 percent lead in the county, the trend is indicative of the GOP's slippage as California struggles under a recession that has 9.8 percent unemployment, a full 2 percent above the national average.
The same poll underscores that the state of the economy eclipses every other issue, to Bush's detriment. When asked whether conditions in the country were likely to improve if Bush were re-elected, 57 percent said no, to 64 percent who said yes when asked the same question about a Clinton first term. And the state budget fiasco in Sacramento that has mired Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the Bush state campaign chairman, has further compounded woes for the entire GOP ticket here.
The situation is so bleak that even former President and California expatriate Richard Nixon is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as advising Bush through friends to save his time and money and forget about trying to win the state, rating Bush's chances at only 30 percent. If he wants to be re-elected, Nixon is quoted as saying, he needs to win Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey -- all considered battleground states.
As do Republican operatives elsewhere, Marty Wilson clings to the issue of Clinton's draft record as the weapon with which to cut the Arkansas governor down to size. "Intuitively we know that is a silver bullet," he says -- although the Times poll found that 75 percent of those questioned said it wouldn't be a factor in how they voted.
On the Democratic side, John Emerson, the Clinton state campaign manager, says the Bush-Reagan rally in Orange County confirms the correctness of the Clinton strategy here to "throw gas on the flames of discontent with Bush in Republican strongholds." He cites a subsequent visit of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Al Gore to Orange County that drew a comparable crowd as an example.
The need to quell that discontent, Emerson says, has obliged the Bush campaign to concentrate on holding its once-secure base. "We're keeping the football between their 10-yard line and their goal line," he says. "If they keep having to go to Orange County, they can't go to the real swing areas in the state."
The off-the-charts polling numbers against Bush in California have stirred speculation that, as Nixon has advised, the president may simply write off California as lost.