While the two GOP presidential front-runners remain locked in a fierce battle in South Carolina, there are signs among some California Republicans that the grip George W. Bush seemed to have on the Golden State is slowly being loosened by Sen. John McCain.
Bush's California spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, said the campaign has not heard anything about possible Bush supporters peeling off, and is not worried. But the McCain campaign says it expects to announce new endorsements next week from California elected officials, some of whom will serve as leaders of the new McCain California effort. The campaign would not say how many endorsements it expects, though one of the most prodigious fund-raisers in the Assembly's Republican Caucus, Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer of Orange County, told Salon that while she has not officially endorsed McCain, "I believe that will happen next week."
Assemblyman Mike Briggs, a conservative from the Central Valley, backed Steve Forbes until the millionaire publisher dropped out of the race Wednesday. Briggs now says he will officially decide next week whom to endorse, but hints that it will likely be McCain. "I enjoy the campaign side of things," Briggs said, reminiscing about "being on the Forbes bus" when Forbes would visit California. "Obviously, I want to endorse somebody who I support philosophically," he said. But he also wants a role with a campaign that is not already completely organized.
The campaign is also reportedly close to lining up "a high-profile Los Angeles elected official" to support the Arizona senator, according to a high-placed source in California Republican circles not affiliated with either campaign.
Ken Khachigian, an architect of Ronald Reagan's 1980 White House victory and now a top McCain aide, said his job as a McCain advocate around California has been easier since the New Hampshire vote. "There has been more interest [since New Hampshire]," he said. "Herb Allison, our national finance chairman, said his phone calls get returned now. It's a pretty common process in these kinds of things. I think there'll be plenty of [donors] lining up if we win South Carolina."
Khachigian and McCain spokesman Dan Schnur, who also has roots in California politics, are now aggressively courting Bush supporters who signed up as early as last summer. "I think that after South Carolina, I'll be on the phone and we'll see if we can't shake loose some of these summertime soldiers," Khachigian said.
One state legislator who has not endorsed a candidate said he is also considering McCain, and said he has put feelers out among the donor community, which appears open to shifting some support to McCain. "California came in early and strong for George W.," the lawmaker said. "I'm optimistic that we can go back to that same well and raise some money for John McCain."
Bush has raised close to $8 million in California, roughly 12 percent of the $68 million he has raised thus far.
While the new McCain endorsements do not yet seem significant in terms of numbers, they suggest a feeling of growing anxiety among California Republicans about the presidential candidate most of them rushed to endorse. Currently, 14 of the state's 15 GOP senators and 27 of the 32 Republican Assembly members have endorsed Bush. In January 1999, a group of legislators sent a letter to Austin encouraging Bush to run, even though then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who had just left office, was still mulling a presidential bid. Republicans had just suffered a thumping at the polls in November 1998, and they quickly rallied around Bush because of a growing buzz that he was the charismatic Washington outsider the party needed.
"Everybody and his brother endorsed George Bush," said GOP analyst Tony Quinn. "Republicans learned their lesson in the defeat of '96 when the party nominated Bob Dole -- I can't imagine a worse Republican to sell in California. But after '96 and '98, they were desperate for a winner."
But the candidate who lives by the buzz dies by the buzz, and if Bush stumbles again in South Carolina, "then you would see, I think, everything in California change," said Quinn. "I don't think anyone's going to jump ship right now, but they could very easily." Quinn noted that while there may be some second thoughts about Bush, they could be put to rest with a Bush victory in South Carolina.
Around Sacramento, one elected official who is supporting Bush described pro-Bush colleagues as "scared shitless" about the front-runner's chances following New Hampshire. Other Bush backers in the capital said any case of the jitters after New Hamsphire was temporary, and that Bush's support there is solid.
Evidence of McCain's New Hampshire bounce was evident last weekend at the California Republican Convention near San Francisco. The campaign claims to have re-registered upward of 50,000 Democrats and independents as Republicans so their votes will count in the March 7 primary. While 50,000 voters are relatively insignificant among the state's 14.7 million registered voters, one Republican said that figure and the trickling of McCain endorsements are symbolic of building momentum.
One pro-Bush legislator cautioned that signs of support moving from Bush to McCain would appear first not in statements of elected officials but in shifts in the fund-raising base. Likening the situation to the early moments of an avalanche, he said, "The snow that moves first is not the snow on the top, it's the snow in the middle. Some of that slide is going on now. That could stop if he [Bush] wins South Carolina."