Seduced and destroyed?

The California GOP came drooling after George W. Bush last year as the man who could save the party. It didn't anticipate the batting eyes of John McCain.

Published March 3, 2000 12:31PM (EST)

After the resounding Republican defeat in 1998, one of the earliest California Republicans to venture to Texas was Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, then the only Republican Latino in the Legislature, who had been newly promoted to Assembly Republican leader after the election.

"I was sitting there with the governor, [Bush strategist] Karl Rove and my chief of staff, just the four of us in the room, and he says to me with his drawl, 'Whaddaya all think of me out there?'" Pacheco recalled. "I said, 'Well, you're our savior.'"

The story of California Republican leaders rallying around Texas Gov. George W. Bush is similar to the rest of the tales that made Bush the early GOP presidential front-runner. Still licking their wounds after a clean Democratic sweep in November 1998, California Republicans began discreetly shuttling down to Austin to meet with Bush begging him to running for president.

California Republicans aggressively courted Bush even though favorite-son Pete Wilson, the two-term Republican governor, was mulling another White House bid. A handful of legislators followed Pacheco to Austin, with George friend Leslie Goodman offering counsel and guidance to many of those who made the pilgrimage. Goodman, however, remained neutral, caught between her former boss, Wilson, and Bush.

Meanwhile, Republican activists in TechNet, the political arm of high-profile high-tech firms, were arranging trips for tech executives to meet with the governor, which quickly led to key political and financial support. By the time Bush arrived in the state at the end of June aboard a plane christened "Great Expectations," he had lined up unprecedented fund-raising and party backing. Bush had done what no candidate in California had been able to do -- unite the Republican Party establishment.

Acrimony has been the hallmark of the California Republican Party establishment for years, leading Dan Schnur, a California GOP veteran and now communications director for John McCain, to say the party was lined up in "a circular firing squad," with its constant, headline-grabbing battles over abortion. But with his Texas charm, Texas-size bankroll and celebrity name, Bush truly was a uniter, not a divider.

Then came John McCain.

After the New Hampshire primary, a swift undercurrent of McCain-a-mania swept through the Golden State. At the state party convention in February, McCain played to an overbooked house -- the back walls of the banquet rooms had to be removed to make room for the crowd.

"There were people in that room that I had never seen at a Republican convention before," said Bush supporter Bob Larkin, "and I've been going to those things a long time."

While Bush's backers have remained steadfast in their support -- with the notable exception of Secretary of State Bill Jones -- some members of the party see the McCain insurgency as a fundamental struggle over what it means to be a Republican.

"This is a battle between the two traditions of the Republican Party," said former state GOP political director Mike Madrid. "It's a return to the old Republican tradition, pre-1980. It's Eisenhower, Nixon and the old Bob Dole. It's about fiscal responsibility and paying down the debt, and a retreat from supply-side economics."

"I think that's the basically the dichotomy," seconded Stephen Moore, a self-described Reaganite who works for the conservative Cato Institute. But Moore calls the rift a fundamental split between Reaganomics vs. Eisenhower economics.

"This struggle has existed on and off for the last 40 years. From the late '70s to the early '90s, the Reagan wing was ascendant. Now you do see this reemergence from this Eisenhower wing of the party, which is essentially the Perot wing of the party coming home. John McCain has helped deliver those Perot voters back to the Republican Party."

But much of the philosophical debate has been masked by the vitriolic attacks marking the race. Madrid believes the personal sniping has masked the powerful subtext of the McCain-Bush debate -- an ideological fight over how to spend new budget surpluses.

So when McCain says his candidacy is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, Madrid agrees. He says it is a conversation long overdue among Republicans in California and elsewhere. "Even the Democrats have become Rockefeller Republicans," Madrid said. "That's where the middle is."

Supply-side economics rose out of bad economic times of the 1970s, but now, in this era of budget surpluses, many Republicans are reconsidering. Twenty years later, the supply-side revolutionaries who swept into power with Reagan have become entrenched, causing many Republican voters to worry they are out of touch with what the American people want. In California, that disenchantment has resulted in stagnant GOP registration over the last decade, while the number of third-party and independent voters has jumped dramatically.

For the last five years, President Clinton has been able to outmaneuver Congress consistently by adopting fiscal responsibility over large tax cuts. It was the issue that came crashing onto the national stage in 1992 with the candidacy of Ross Perot, and one that helped sink the presidency of George Bush, who was still advocating Reagan-style tax cuts. (Ironically, Bush was one of the most vehement, early critics of Reagan's plan in 1980, calling it "voodoo economics.")

"The problem is, all of these guys who came in in 1980 railing against the establishment have now become that which they hated," Madrid says. "Where the party is and where the people are have become two different things."

Polls confirm Madrid's theory. When both candidates tested their tax plans, opinion polls in New Hampshire, a state where tax cutting is religion, showed that Republicans overwhelmingly favored the McCain plan.

But it has been social issues like abortion and immigration that have ripped the Republican Party apart in California, anchored in the party's problems among two key constituencies, Latinos and women -- both of whom voted in record numbers for Bush in Texas. In 1998, Bush secured more than 40 percent of the state's Latino vote, and close to 60 percent support from Texas women.

That impressed a lot of Californians from across the Republican political spectrum, and made Bush the hands-down winner of California's so-called "silent primary," the period before candidates declare their candidacy when they informally test the political waters. Though the state is notorious for its divisive inter-party squabbles over hot-button social issues like abortion, conservatives and moderates alike coalesced around Bush. Arguably the most conservative member of the Assembly Republican Caucus, Bruce Thompson, and the most liberal, Jim Cunneen, signed a petition in January 1999 urging Bush to run.

Thompson circulated the petition around the Capitol and received 25 signatures, nearly half the Republicans in the Legislature. "[California Gov.] Pete Wilson was still in the race at that time, so it was a bold move on their part," said Thompson of the signatories. "But the fact was, the Republican Party alienated people in this state, and here was a guy who knows how to mend fences and build the party back up."

Bush friend and former Wilson booster Gerald Parsky was also taking trips to Austin, reporting to the governor about how a Bush candidacy would play among the state's donor community. "The most important thing to the money folks was that they would have a candidate who would pledge to wage a serious campaign here in the fall," Parsky said. With that assurance, much of the California donor community also pledged support for Bush.

"Republicans here in California were looking for a leader that would have some coattails, and wouldn't cut them off when they grabbed ahold," said Bob Larkin, a moderate Republican activist who has persistently, and unsuccessfully, struggled to remove the abortion plank from the state party platform. "He looked like such a sure thing that everybody got on board."

Those troops have, for the most part, remained loyal to Bush, in part because his star power helped the state party out of the more than $300,000 debt hole it created during the 1998 campaign. After a deal was struck to place Bush ally Jim Brulte in charge of the state party's fund-raising wing, the governor came to California late last year and raised more than $2 million for the party.

While the party is officially neutral in the primary, there are signs everywhere of favoritism toward Bush. On primary night in California, Bush was invited to address the state party, an invitation he has apparently refused. While McCain plans on being in the state Tuesday night, he was never invited to speak to the party.

The challenge for McCain in California is a daunting one. But during his recent two-day swing through the state, he tried to seize upon California Republicans' hunger for a winner, and illustrate that he is more electable in the fall than Bush. California is now Democratic turf, with a Democratic governor and two Democratic U.S. senators. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 and 1996. It was the message of electabilty upon which McCain is trying to get Californians to turn away from Bush. While McCain is running stronger than Bush in most head-to-head match-ups with Gore, he still trails badly among Republican voters, whose support he needs to secure the nomination.

"In California, I find my Republican friends yearning for victory," McCain said. "Only I can make that happen this year. I can defeat Al Gore while George Bush cannot ... I will beat Al Gore like a drum, George Bush cannot."

McCain's arrival in California came on the heels of a late decision by the campaign to cancel a scheduled debate appearance with Bush and Alan Keyes in Los Angeles Thursday. McCain quickly reversed that reversal early Tuesday morning, agreeing to cancel an event in New York to participate via satellite, an apparent attempt to stave off the inevitable flood of bad press -- something McCain is not used to -- and questions about the senator's decision to duck the event threatened to dwarf his three-day swing through California.

His about face is a recognition that New York is the silver medal in the Tuesday sweepstakes, with only 101 Republican delegates to California's 162. And unlike New York, California's primary is winner-take-all. McCain will win many of New York's delegates Tuesday night, but there is a very real chance he will walk away from the Golden State empty-handed.

Recent polls in California show McCain trailing anywhere from 11 to 22 points among Republican voters, though he running about even with Bush when the votes of independents and Democrats are factored in. Because of California's quirky primary laws, all voters will be able to cast ballots for the candidate of their choosing on election night, but only Republican ballots will be used to determine which candidate receives all 162 delegates in California.

McCain's initial decision to cancel his debate appearance prompted the Bush campaign to immediately charge that the senator was writing off California, even though McCain is spending half the week here, and is spending as much or more than Bush on paid advertising in California.

Even McCain communications director and California political veteran Dan Schnur was critical of the senator's decision to cancel, calling it a "staff error," and publicly urging McCain to change his mind. Schnur's own straight talk was enough to get him benched for this trip, apparently in the campaign doghouse.

But Schnur knows that California Republicans are particularly sensitive to getting proper attention. The state has become a Democratic safe haven in recent years -- Clinton carried the state twice, and now the governor's office and both legislative houses are run by Democrats. In 1998, Democrats swept all but two of the statewide races, leaving the state Republican Party in shambles.

The election of 1998, still fresh in the minds of California Republicans, helps explain why Schnur felt compelled to publicly second-guess his boss about the debate. Schnur knows that California Republicans are extra sensitive to the perception that candidates are abandoning California.

"In 1992 and 1996, we had presidential candidates give up on us, and it dragged the rest of the ticket down," Thompson said. "Part of the appeal of George Bush was that he could be competitive in California in the fall."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Al Gore California George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.