California, ad-free for now

A day after Bush avoids buying airtime in California -- and draws criticism from Dems -- Gore follows suit.

By Anthony York
Published August 23, 2000 11:42PM (EDT)

When Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush announced a 21-state ad buy Monday for the fall general election campaign, the rival campaign of Vice President Al Gore was quick to point out that no ads were planned to run in California, suggesting the Texas governor was already writing off the country's largest state.

But when Gore announced his initial ad buy Tuesday, he also omitted California. Is that an instance of hypocrisy in the Gore campaign?

Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera, who criticized Bush's California snub a day before, defended his criticism, even though his boss was not yet investing advertising dollars in the state either. "California helped relaunch this campaign," Cabrera said. "We're hoping to build on that momentum. The Gore campaign had a presence in California for four days. Unlike George W. Bush, we don't have to reassure California that we care about them and their issues and we'll fight for them."

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker says the campaign understands that California Republicans are sensitive about being ignored, but feels vindicated by Gore's announcement today. By forgoing California, she says, Gore simply proved that August is too early to begin buying TV ads in California. "There's nothing to be read into this other than it's early," she said. "That was proven 100 percent again today by the Democrats."

Tucker said she was ready for the media reaction when California was left off the list. "We all have gotten pretty good at anticipating when you guys are going to think we're throwing in the towel," she said. "We knew that we'd have to deal with that question." But Tucker reaffirmed the governor's commitment to California, adding that Bush was planning a post-Labor Day ad buy in the state, and hinting Bush may be headed back to California before the end of the month.

But other Republicans said there is a higher bar for Republicans in California, and deservedly so. "Of course there's a double standard, but history excuses double standards," said Dan Schnur, a California Republican strategist and former communications director for John McCain's presidential campaign. "Republicans have blown off the state in the last two presidential campaigns. Sure it's unfair, but the onus is on us to prove that we're going to compete in California. "

But Schnur also repeated the Bush campaign's warning that at this stage, there is a danger in reading too much into every deployment of resources. "Both sides are playing a very high-stakes game of electoral chicken," he said. "Both campaigns want to see if the other one blinks first. If the Bush camp is still trying to make its final California plans, the best thing to do is keep Gore guessing."

Incredibly, part of the problem for the Bush campaign may be financial. Though Bush has shattered all previous fundraising records -- raising more than $100 million to date -- the campaign seems to have the burn rate of an Internet start-up. The campaign has spent $97.2 million to date, and is conserving resources for the true battleground states in the fall.

Tucker pointed out the campaign's spending is so high in part because the Bush campaign must pay for travel costs while the vice president "flies around on Air Force Two." But according to a recent Bush campaign release, only 14 percent of the budget was spent on travel costs, meaning only a paltry $83.6 million was spent on expenses other than travel - still far more than the $21 million spent by the Gore campaign.

Whether California, the largest and most expensive media state in the nation, becomes a key battleground remains to be seen. Like Bush, Gore will run his first set of ads in key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois -- states where many analysts believe the presidential race will be decided.

"We proved our commitment to California by the number of trips," Cabrera said, noting that Gore has been to the state 60 times as vice president. But that's the same argument the Bush campaign is using. Bush has been to California 14 times since announcing his candidacy last year, and his running mate, Dick Cheney, is wrapping up a two-day swing through the state Wednesday.

Still, Republicans in the state admit that the collective eyebrows of the state party have been raised by Bush's decision not to advertise here yet. The lack of an air presence coupled with Gore's bounce in the polls has many California Republicans skittish. "It's the beaten dog syndrome," said Bill Whalen, a California Republican strategist who is now working for U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell. "This is a beaten dog. The Republicans here were beaten in '92 and beaten in '96. The last thing you want is to be beaten again."

But Democrats have also shown some concern in recent weeks in the wake of a new Public Policy Institute of California poll that showed the race in a statistical dead heat. Gore reportedly turned down Gov. Gray Davis' invitation to take a post-convention tour of the state. And when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was asked by the Oakland Tribune if there was concern over Gore's prospects in California, he responded, "there's sure a great concern by me."

Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that while Bush has spent more time in California than GOP presidential candidates before him, the ultimate test will be one of spending, not social calls. "You got to spend a lot of money to make an impact in California," he said.

Cain slammed the Bush campaign in the press Monday for overlooking California, but had a very different interpretation of the Gore campaign's decision to overlook the Golden State. "I think it reveals that they are comfortable with where they are in California," he said of the Gore campaign. "And remember that the last polls we saw were pre-convention polls -- at the height of Bush's popularity. We've got to believe that their inside tracking polls have told them that they are back outside the margin of error in California."

Cain said the Bush campaign could have saved itself a lot of agony by making a token buy in one of California's smaller markets. "The middle road is to pick the most marginal media market in the state and put money in that. You don't have to think of it as a whole state. That would have taken the heat off him. It seems like an obvious no-brainer move and I don't understand why they didn't do that. I think it would have served a larger political purpose in reassuring everybody that they would have played in California."

Tucker said any symbolic buy would be seen as transparent, and that the campaign would rather wait to spend money in the fall. "[The press] would see that for what it was worth. When you're down to brass tacks and you have a finite amount of money to spend, it's really important how you spend it," she said. "People in California would rather us spend it wisely later rather than foolishly early."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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