California shapes up as big loss for Bush

September 20, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A wall outside Santa Ana High School proclaims it to be "Home of the Saints." Inside, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush was being presented a cap and shirt from the school's student president. "It honors you as a Saint -- for today," she said.

Mr. Bush, his face breaking into a mischievous grin, looked out at the reporters observing from the rear of the room. "Did everybody write that down back there?" he asked.

The past couple of weeks were hardly an elevation to sainthood for the Texas governor. They saw a series of awkward gaffes and damaging political missteps that caused, or at least coincided with, rival Vice President Al Gore's rise in the polls and his own slippage.

Mr. Bush's on-microphone slur about a New York Times reporter tipped his halo, as did revelation of apparent mischief on an anti-Democratic Bush ad that subliminally flashed the word "rats" to millions of viewers. And his efforts to duck the three televised debates proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates backfired, forcing him to retreat and accept the plan backed from the start by Mr. Gore.

Each of these incidents provided a field day for the press, not only casting Mr. Bush in a poor light but just as importantly making it more difficult for him to get his own messages -- both positive and negative -- through to voters.

But Mr. Bush presses on, varying his campaign schedule with more events that put him in direct proximity to voters, such as the one before predominantly Latino and Asian-American students at the home of the Saints. The message itself remains essentially the same -- a set recitation of his theme that individual responsibility rather than "bureaucrats in Washington, D.C." holds the key to continued economic prosperity and the upholding of family values.

Despite some reservations among Republican leaders who have seen GOP tax-cut proposals in Congress get nowhere, Mr. Bush continues to push his own, using the traditional Republican pitch that tax money belongs to the people, not the government, and should be given back to them when there is a large surplus.

The disposition of the surplus, here as elsewhere, is a key dispute between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore -- even as they try to outdo each other with prescription drug benefit proposals, the hot issue of the day.

In a speech under a bright red-and-green pagoda before a large crowd of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans in the "Little Saigon" section of the town of Westminster the other day, Mr. Bush cited "the wonderful fabric of this great state," saying "California is a state of many faces and many cultures." But he made no reference at all to Vietnam, instead serving up his standard pitch that good things will come to "every willing heart" that works for them.

In a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser afterward in Irvine and a smaller dinner at $25,000 a couple in a private home in swanky Newport Beach, Mr. Bush delivered pretty much the same message with no sign that the travails that had descended on his campaign were slowing him down, or changing his message.

Although the most recent polls show him 13 points behind Mr. Gore in California, he continues to say he expects to win here. Win or lose, however, he is somewhat a captive of an earlier promise to campaign all-out in the state, and of financial support of him from California Republicans.

In 1992, his father also pledged to make a serious bid in the state but pretty much gave up when polls showed Democratic nominee Bill Clinton safely ahead. The younger Mr. Bush has raised millions here, combining each trip into California with lucrative fund-raisers. At the same time, GOP leaders emphasize the importance of having strength at the top of the ticket to assist, or at least not undermine, Republican congressional candidates.

The party has at least four House seats in jeopardy on Nov. 7 as a result of strong Democratic challenges, and the fear is that if Mr. Bush is perceived as a loser, Republican turnout may slip badly, sinking these incumbents along with him. So George W. has little choice but to persevere here.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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