George W.'s California swing

The Texas governor meets the GOP gilded on his first campaign trip to the Golden State.

Published June 29, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

The arrival of GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush in San Diego Monday night was an appropriately genteel affair. When the governor's plane, christened "Great Expectations," touched down at Lindberg Field, a handful of Republican faithful waited beneath a majestic full moon, alongside well-behaved reporters and a cadre of gleeful Republican veterans of the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign.

After the TWA charter jet pulled to a stop, three dozen reporters ran down the back steps of the plane and quickly got into position. The governor then emerged from the front door, waved to the cameras and shook the hands of a carefully chosen greeting committee that included former San Diego Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke and former Los Angeles Lakers guard Brad Holland. After the obligatory hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, Bush strode confidently toward the press corps.

Which immediately showed its pack-animal tendencies. At first, reporters kept an appropriate distance between themselves and the Texas governor, until one reporter crossed the invisible line and broke free. With the force field around Bush penetrated, the 50 other reporters quickly rushed forward as two Bush operatives crouched at each flank with palms out, keeping them at bay. It was hard not to think that while Bush is going from chicken dinner to chicken dinner over the next three days, the hungry press corps will be out stalking its own fresh meat -- circling George W. like a pack of hyenas.

This is Bush's first trip to the Golden State as a presidential candidate, and the local Republican establishment could not be happier. State party leaders have been tripping over themselves for the last nine months getting in line to support him, and they have lined up an impressive list of well-monied donors waiting for the privilege of having Bush pocket their money.

A quick glance at the governor's itinerary shows that this is not exactly a social call. Bush will be in town for less than 72 hours, but his handlers have a busy schedule planned. Tuesday, Bush had fund-raising for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in San Diego, Irvine and Los Angeles respectively. Wednesday will be more of the same -- an early fund-raising breakfast in Los Angeles, lunch at the Hyatt in Sacramento and dinner at the tony St. Francis hotel in San Francisco. He will have two more fund-raisers on Thursday before leaving for Austin just after 4 p.m.

Like a squirrel gathering autumn acorns for the coming winter, George Bush is in California to fatten up his reserves, which will carry him through the winter snows of Iowa and New Hampshire. In all, Bush's advisors estimate the governor will raise more than $4.2 million on this trip, a nice way to close out the second quarter of fund-raising. He picked up almost a half-million at Tuesday's breakfast alone. When reports are filed with the Federal Elections Commission early next month, Bush will likely have raised more than $20 million.

It is all part of a well-orchestrated, top-down campaign strategy that Bush has executed flawlessly to this point. His celebrity status and landslide reelection last year made him an early presidential front-runner, and Bush has spent months orchestrating meetings in Austin and lining up high-octane Republican supporters from across the country. This month's foray into New Hampshire, his recent trip to Capitol Hill and now this trip to California are not your standard grip-and-grin with voters. Rather they are an opportunity for the Republican elite to get their first look at the man at whom they are already throwing their money.

With its early March 7 primary and its grand prize of 54 electoral votes, California will be a battleground for all serious presidential wannabes this year. The state is a key testing ground for the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, for instance, whose maverick political stands and military record may position him to pose the greatest threat to a Bush victory in California. Though woefully behind in early polls, McCain is already running television ads in San Diego and recently hired Dan Schnur, a press secretary to former California Gov. Pete Wilson, as his national media spokesman. Schnur said California is one of three key states -- along with New Hampshire and South Carolina, in which McCain will campaign heavily, hoping to wrest momentum away from Bush.

But it won't be easy. Disparate factions within the state's Republican Party have already begun to coalesce around Bush. Call it the "Latch on and pray" strategy. But the breadth of Bush's support here, and across the country, illustrates just how badly Republicans here want a winner. President Clinton carried the state comfortably in 1992 and 1996, and former President Bush as well as candidate Bob Dole essentially folded their campaign operations here by early autumn. State party leaders say that helped drag down their two candidates for U.S. Senate in 1992, and allowed Democrats to retake the state Assembly in 1996.

But the state's Republican Party has troubles of its own making. It's been deeply divided in recent years, with social moderates rallying behind former Gov. Wilson and conservatives more closely linked to last year's gubernatorial nominee, Dan Lungren. Now, both men are gone from the state's political scene, and there is still a huge vacuum of leadership at the head of the party.

As he has done all across the country, Bush has filled a Republican political vacuum in California. While he was publicly hemming and hawing about his campaign plans last winter, Bush invited several California leaders to the governor's mansion in Austin to come kiss the proverbial ring. One by one they arrived, bearing gifts of political support, campaign checks and golden Rolodexes.

Leslie Goodman, a powerful Wilson ally and former deputy under Reagan-Bush Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, is a close Bush friend and played an early pivotal role in lining up Wilson fund-raisers for the Texas governor. Rock-ribbed conservatives such as Assemblyman Bruce Thompson have been backing Bush since before day one -- Thomspon even made a special trip out to Lindberg Field to make the Texas governor feel welcome Monday. State Sen. Jim Brulte, arguably the most powerful elected Republican in California, is Bush's committee co-chairman.

It may be fitting that Bush begins his California campaign here in San Diego, this city perched on the Mexican border. San Diego is the home of Pete Wilson, whose Pyrrhic victory in 1994 helped lead to the party's statewide destruction four years later. Wilson made immigration a touchstone of his 1994 campaign, and ran a controversial ad with blurred images of immigrants crossing the border illegally and an ominous voice-over that warned, "They keep coming." He also hitched his campaign to a ballot initiative, Proposition 187, that would have eliminated social welfare benefits for undocumented residents. The initiative passed easily, and Wilson was reelected in a landslide, but it served as a rallying cry for California Latinos, who have since flocked to the polls in record numbers, and have voted Democratic nearly 4-1.

Now, California Republicans are running from the shadow cast by Wilson's immigration stands, and looking for ways to build Latino support. Again, Bush is tailor made to ease the party's woes. He prides himself on strong support from Texas' Latino community, earning nearly 50 percent of the Latino vote in 1998 -- exhibit A of his "compassionate conservatism." Bush supporters hope his Hispanic support in Texas will transfer to California, where 14 percent of all voters in the last election were Latino.

Bush wasted no time making clear that courting the Latino vote would be a centerpiece of his California campaign strategy. "There needs to be a message that speaks to the values that the Hispanic community can understand," Bush said from the tarmac Monday night. "I've done a good job in Texas of reaching out to the Hispanic community. I intend to do so here in the state of California."

Republicans are hoping Bush can pull Latinos and Reagan Democrats back to the party and return the state to its former GOP glory. They also know it will be nearly impossible for the Democratic presidential nominee to win without carrying California.

But this year has already seen "great expectations" dashed, with the much anticipated "Star Wars" prequel. Though the movie began with record early money totals and incredible media coverage, "The Phantom Menace" ultimately was panned by movie critics, and it failed to meet financial expectations. With Bush's California arrival, the year's second-most hyped event gets under way in the Golden State. But reporters and California voters are unlikely to find out on this trip whether George W. Bush is worthy of all the hype surrounding his campaign. This is simply a preview of coming attractions.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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California George W. Bush Republican Party Texas