In a campaign visit rich in both symbolism and substance, Texas Gov. George W. Bush returned to California on Thursday, in part to send a message to the media and Vice President Al Gore that he intends to compete in the state this fall, despite trailing by double digits in the most recent polls.
"I know there's a rumor going around the press in California that somwhow I wasn't going to compete in California," Bush said. "That's wishful thinking on the part of Al Gore."
Ultimately, that decision will not be made until the final weeks of the campaign, when the Bush and Gore camps must decide where to make their last-minute ad buys. In the meantime, Bush is doing a good job of being extra sensitive to the fears of state Republicans, who have been abandoned by presidential candidates in the past.
Last month, the Bush campaign did a last-minute 180-degree turn, deciding to keep the California campaign office open. That makes it the only regional office to remain open after the primary. Today, the office is a shell of its formal self -- only one of the eight full-time staff members remains on the Bush payroll. But the gesture of keeping the office open is important in the ongoing war of perception that has dominated this campaign.
This trip, Bush's advisors deliberately scheduled a two-day itinerary without any fund-raising events. In the past, politicians from both parties have used California as their political ATM, taking money out of the state's cash-rich donor community, despite the fact that some candidates, such as then-President George Bush and Bob Dole, virtually shut down their campaigns here early in the 1990s.
Bush has made a promise to be a different kind of Republican, not just in his embrace of "compassionate conservatism," and his focus on nontraditional Republican issues, but as one who will wage a competitive campaign in California.
Showing more of the Teutonic discipline that marked his two gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, Bush came to California to sell his education plan, in particular the new, $5 billion literacy program he unveiled last month. Seated next to Jaime Escalante, the former teacher portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the movie "Stand and Deliver," Bush engaged in an open, round-table discussion with local school board members, teachers and principals in Sacramento.
Bush reiterated that he does not want to be the "federal superintendent of schools" or "the national principal." He outlined proposals that call for increased local control, but add federal standards that test student achievement and pin schools' federal Title I money on that achievement. "We cannot continue to reward failure," Bush said.
When Bush talks about education, his stump speeches sound different from those on any other issue. Unlike other topics where Bush famously talks himself in circles, the Texas governor has an obvious passion for the subject, and is familiar with it. For more than an hour, Bush moved easily among topics ranging from achievement testing, teacher training and school accountability to the minutiae of phonics-based reading programs. Education is to Bush what foreign policy is to McCain -- home turf -- and Bush seems eager to turn the race for the White House into a debate on education.
"I look forward to this debate," Bush said. "It's more of the same vs. a reform agenda that has yielded positive results in a state like Texas."
Bush's concentration on education bodes well for his campaign in California, where a laser focus on the issue propelled Democrat Gray Davis to a 20-point victory in the 1998 gubernatorial election. Davis' first act as governor was to declare a special session of the Legislature to take up four sweeping education reform measures. Davis called education "my first, second and third priorities."
Despite Bush's pledge to campaign hard here, he is frank about the challenge he faces. "It's going to be tough just because I've got Republican by my name," he said.
Bush also acknowledged the struggle to reach out to Latino voters, recognizing the problems the state went through in 1994 in its fights over illegal immigration, which many Latinos and Democrats say were provoked by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "They know I've fought to tear down walls," he said of his record among Latinos. "There are some in my party and other political parties that want to build walls between Mexico and American and I refuse to let that happen in my state of Texas. So I've got a record, but I've got a lot of work to do.
"There are some that say, 'He's a Republican. El no tiene corazsn, he doesn't have a heart,' but that's what a campaign's about, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."