Dole targets 'wedge' issues in Calif. But public's response has not been strong

Campaign 1996

September 28, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- In Bob Dole's uphill fight against President Clinton for California's 54 electoral votes, the Republican presidential nominee is looking for help from two favorite "wedge" issues of Gov. Pete Wilson -- immigration and affirmative action.

But neither one now appears likely to save Dole here on election day, simply because a strong California economy is buoying Clinton's consistent popularity in the state and overshadowing divisions that are at the heart of the debates over these two issues.

A wedge issue is one that can split the electorate, in these two cases along racial and ethnic lines, and exploit the resultant divisions. Wilson, after having ridden one of them -- opposition to illegal immigration -- to re-election in 1994, thought he had found another to power his bid for the Republican presidential nomination -- a ban on affirmative action in state hiring, education and contracting.

Before bowing out of the 1996 race, Wilson endorsed a statewide ballot proposition called the California Civil Rights Initiative to achieve that end. Like Proposition 187 barring state benefits to illegal immigrants in 1994, the civil rights initiative -- now designated Proposition 209 -- was seen as a way to tap into opposition among white voters who see affirmative action as reverse discrimination favoring minorities and women.

Proponents of affirmative action defend it as warranted not only to benefit qualified applicants of minority groups and women who are underrepresented in society, but also to provide more diversity in the workplace and on campuses. Critics pushing Proposition 209 see affirmative action as permitting preferential treatment for racial and ethnic groups and women who may not be as qualified as white male applicants.

Dole has joined Wilson in endorsing Proposition 209, as well as the cutbacks in aid to illegal immigrants under Proposition 187, which are in limbo in California as a result of a court order declaring them unenforceable. Wilson is using recent enactment of the federal welfare reform act, which also denies aid to illegals, to argue that Proposition 187 can now be implemented.

While a Los Angeles Times poll in July found overwhelming support for Proposition 209 -- 59 percent in favor to 29 percent against -- the same poll showed slippage from the 66 percent backing it had in March. But when voters surveyed were informed that the proposal would actually end affirmative action in state programs -- the words "affirmative action" are not in the initiative; it refers instead to "preferential treatment" -- only 43 percent said they were for it, compared with 40 percent opposed.

The challenge for the opponents of Proposition 209 thus is to sell their argument that it will roll back the clock on racial and ethnic harmony and opportunity for women, and for the proponents to defend it as fair as well as an expression of the public will.

Both tasks take money, and so far at least, corporate and labor interests that have financed many initiatives in the past have been stingy in underwriting the side of the controversy they support.

Arnie Steinberg, the chief strategist for Proposition 209, says many corporate executives "see affirmative action as a cost of doing business and see the status quo as insulating them" from labor problems. So, he says, the Proposition 209 campaign has had to "go hand to mouth, hoping to stay on the air" with small radio ad buys.

Pat Ewing, manager of the anti-Proposition 209 campaign, says many corporate executives are remaining neutral because they have successful affirmative action programs in place and don't want to resurrect old labor troubles.

Wilson got egg on his face recently when a reporter for the Daily News in Los Angeles inadvertently got an invitation to listen to a telephone conference call billed as "confidential" between the governor and House Speaker Newt Gingrich on one side and about 60 corporate contributors in the state on the other.

The reporter wrote that Wilson and Gingrich had appealed to them to give money for Proposition 209, which had not been put forward as a partisan effort, to give Dole a boost and help elect Republican candidates.

Gingrich was reported to have said: "I believe as speaker of the House, from my vantage point, the California Civil Rights Initiative is vital because we have to be competitive in California to keep control of the House. We could have a swing from plus three [congressional seats] to minus four, just in California.

"If the California Civil Rights Initiative is still ahead by a dramatic margin [later in the campaign], Clinton has to take his time and money out of the Midwest to put in California. He can't win the presidency without winning California."

Wilson's office did not challenge the accuracy of the story and insisted that the Proposition 209 campaign was bipartisan, that he and Gingrich were merely tailoring their remarks to appeal to the Republicans contacted.

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