Back from the brink

Bush keeps a California office after all, trying to reassure Golden State Republicans he won't give up on the state.

Published March 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

After a week of mixed messages and swirling rumors, the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush decided Friday to keep its California offices open, to maintain a symbolic presence in the Golden State and help ease growing concerns among some Republicans here that California was moving to the campaign's back burner.

As recently as Thursday, the office appeared to be headed for a shutdown. But Bush strategists in California and Austin ultimately decided that the political consequences of closing the office would have been more severe than any financial hit the campaign will take for maintaining a skeleton crew.

"I think from the very beginning it has been important, and the governor has been fully committed to competing in California," said Bush California Chairman Gerry Parsky. "All of this is part of demonstrating his commitment to California. Maintaining the office, even as we go through the transition, is an important part of that effort."

The decision to spare the California office underscores the sensitivity within the Bush campaign and local Republican circles about the Golden State. The state has fallen into firm Democratic control during the 1990s, and in 1992 and 1996, the Republican presidential nominees effectively packed up early and wrote the state off.

Bush has made promises to local Republican leaders that he would be different. Amid a gushing of political adoration and a flood of early campaign contributions, Bush came barnstorming out of Texas last June talking about the importance of California and vowing to be competitive here.

But now that money is an issue with the once cash-rich campaign, there have been worries since Super Tuesday that Bush would shut down his offices. That would have convinced many Republicans here that Bush was following in the footsteps of his father in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, and conceding California.

The announcement Friday that the office would stay open was an effort to quell some of those concerns. Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the governor would be returning to the state in April both to campaign and to raise money.

California may be the grand electoral prize in November, but it is also the most expensive state in which to run a campaign. And while Friday's announcement was meant to soothe state GOP leaders, the campaign in California is undeniably in flux. Bush California staffer Matt Rexroad, who was in charge of much of the grass-roots outreach in California, has left the campaign. Parsky implied Friday that others may eventually leave, and new staffers are certain to come aboard this summer.

Clearly, it's an office in transition. Parsky said the campaign may be moving soon, and that some of the full-time Bush staffers may latch on to Victory 2000, the soft-money arm of the state Republican Party led by state senator and Bush loyalist Jim Brulte.

"We're sorting out various functions," Parsky said. "Victory 2000 will have a function that will support the nominee, and some of those people may be staffed there." Victory 2000 set a target of raising $21 million this year to help Republican election efforts in the state.

The transfer of power to the state and national parties is standard operating procedure for the post-primary dog days. Both entities raise millions in soft money, and both the state and national arms of both major parties play pivotal roles in helping to keep the campaigns of their presumptive nominees afloat.

Like Bush, Al Gore is keeping a skeleton crew in place in his California office. The state is a vital piece of the Democratic Electoral College puzzle, and it would be extremely difficult for Gore to win in November without carrying California.

"We are very much in transition," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway. "Over the next few months, there will be some staffing changes. We're not telling the world what we're doing because that gets to be strategic information."

But Gore California Director Skye Gallegos is back at Gore HQ in Nashville as final decisions about staffing levels are being made. "The bottom line is that it's a big state and there's a lot of work to do," Hattaway said. "Our office remains open. We have staff working there, and there's a lot of enthusiasm about the campaign. They're getting out the message, trying to get people to sign on the dotted line in support of Al Gore, and they'll also be keeping W. on his toes in California," Hattaway said.

Bush California co-chairman Bruce Thompson insists that Bush will return to California this summer and run hard. "I had a chance to spend 45 minutes with the governor a week ago Monday," Thompson said. "His commitment is as firm as its ever been in California. He knows the importance of competing in this state if we're going to keep a Republican Congress."

Still, many members of Congress are worried about Bush's coattails. Roll Call reported a new poll issued to House Republicans last week saying Bush's lead has evaporated, and that GOP candidates for Congress should not hitch their fate to the Texas governor. "We can't rely on the presidential nominee," Rep. J.C. Watts told Roll Call. "There's no coattails [for Bush] at this time."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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