Could Gore lose California?

Republicans say yes, most Dems say no. But Clinton's planning a visit to rally the base, just in case.

By Anthony York

Published October 25, 2000 10:37PM (EDT)

The fight for California may be the most important game of political chicken going in the final weeks of Campaign 2000. Tuesday, Republicans prepared to step up their advertising blitz in the state on behalf of Gov. George W. Bush, testing Democrats and Al Gore to see if they will flinch. But for now, on California airwaves at least, Democrats remain silent.

Some Democrats, however, are sufficiently concerned about the sudden tightening in the race -- Gore's lead has been slashed to 5 points in the latest poll -- to appeal directly to President Clinton, to ask him to come to California to energize the base. Now, despite some Gore campaign reservations about an open role for the president, Clinton is expected to campaign in Oakland and Los Angeles, at least, in the home stretch of the campaign.

For months, Gore and his advisors have considered California occupied territory for Democrats, and found it unnecessary to spend time or money in the Golden State. Gore breezed through for a pair of multimillion-dollar fundraisers this fall, but has since been but a specter here.

Bush, meanwhile, has made 16 trips to the state since July 1999 and is scheduled to come back before October is through, according to California campaign spokeswoman Lindsay Kozberg. Bush's internal tracking polls show him within striking distance, a conclusion buttressed by the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll, which shows Gore's lead has been trimmed to a meager 5 points.

"If George Bush wants to come in here and waste his time and do head fakes, that's his option," California Gov. Gray Davis' senior political advisor, Garry South, told the Boston Globe in July. "The bottom line is, he's not going to carry California. This is all a little scam they're running. Nobody should confuse it with reality."

But South is now changing his tune. Speaking to reporters at the Sacramento Press Club last week, South acknowledged the race was tightening, and implored the Gore campaign to send the candidate or President Clinton out to rally the troops. South told Salon on Friday: "The Republicans are spending millions out here, and this race is closing down from a double-digit spread." While Gore still leads Bush in California, South noted, the rising Republican tide in the state could ultimately cost the Democrats congressional seats in close races. "If we're not going to get the candidate out here again, then we need Bill Clinton," he said.

So over the weekend, South said, Davis contacted Clinton and asked for his help directly, without going through the Gore campaign (he is its California chair). Davis "chatted with him at length about the end game in California," the advisor said. "There's nobody who knows how to close better in a campaign than Bill Clinton. He did it in '92 and '96, and he helped do it for Democrats in 1998, when he wasn't even on the ballot." South said he expects Clinton to rally the base -- read: African Americans and Latinos -- in Oakland and the East San Francisco Bay Area, as well as South and East Los Angeles, where there are large African-American and Latino populations.

South said there would be a "massive" effort in California in the closing days of the campaign, but could not say that there would definitely be a television presence. He said Davis would clear his schedule during the final 10 days of the campaign to stump for the vice president.

South lamented the "lost opportunities and missed chances to nail this state down. Obviously, it's not helpful when you have millions of dollars being spent on media on the air bashing your candidate and you don't respond to it," he said. But he said he gives the Republicans credit for running a shrewd campaign here.

Other Democrats downplay worries about Gore losing the state. "Garry accomplished one thing; he helped lower expectations in the state," said California Democratic Party political director Bob Mulholland. "The idea was to get the Republicans to spend millions of dollars here in California. That's money that they're not spending in real battlegrounds like Florida and Michigan. But we knew all along that we'd win this state by single digits."

Mulholland said that the party had plans to run television spots on Gore's behalf. "But," he said, "we're not making any announcements today." He did say that the party has started a $320,000 ad campaign on Latino and African-American radio stations statewide to help rally the base.

Kozberg pointed out that Republicans have dedicated millions to the effort in California, and says the Democrats were caught napping. "We're led to the conclusion that they continue to take California for granted, and we couldn't be happier," she said.

But the biggest gesture to shore up Democratic support will be a Clinton visit, which Mulholland expects soon. "He's popular in California, and the president is coming to rally the base," he said.

The Gore campaign said there is no plan for Gore to visit California before Election Day and that the campaign will not be purchasing television ads, but that President Clinton would probably make a swing through the state. The PPIC poll showed Clinton with a 60 percent approval rating among California voters.

The fact that Bush is still alive in California is emblematic of the vice president's inability to close the deal with voters in states that have tended to go Democratic in recent elections. In states where the Clinton-Gore ticket ran strong, including the other left-coast states of Washington and Oregon, Gore has had to spend time and money during the closing days of this campaign to make sure they stay in the Democratic column. In those three states -- along with a host of others like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- Ralph Nader's single-digit support may be enough to tip the balance in favor of Bush.

The Republican Party has been spending $1.5 million per week for the last 4 weeks here, according to Jim Brulte, who is heading up the Victory 2000 effort in California.

"It won't be any less between now and Election Day," Brulte said. "It may get expanded. We're serious about trying to win here."

Though the Bush campaign has not purchased any ads in California, both the Republican National Committee and the party's Victory 2000 effort have spent millions on advertising. Last week, the RNC announced a new Spanish-language ad blitz here.

Though Bush's support is increasing in the state, his numbers in the Latino community seem stuck. A pair of polls earlier this month -- one that showed Gore with a 13 point lead, the other with a 6 point lead -- both had Bush pulling about 22 percent of the state's Latino voters.

But Frank Guerra, who produced the Spanish-language spots for the RNC, says those numbers will change before Election Day. "The Hispanic population is just now significantly tuning in to this race. They don't vote absentee; they are much more an Election Day voting block. I would say that the numbers are still in the 20s; you will start to see that change."

Guerra says 30 is the magic number -- if Bush can get to 30 percent in the state's Latino community, he would carry California, and the White House.

But will the Spanish ads really have an effect? A survey conducted by Lance Tarrance released by the RNC in February showed that close to 80 percent of American Hispanics get most of their political information in English. So why spend millions on a Spanish-language campaign?

For one, Guerra says, in this "year of the Hispanic" there is a residual benefit of the English-language media covering the Spanish-language advertising campaign. But with the GOP effort awash in money, Guerra said they can afford these Spanish-language ads as "a supplement to the other efforts going on." Guerra also said the Los Angeles market, which is filled with newer Hispanic immigrants, was an exception to the 80 percent statistic in the RNC survey. "Certain markets like Los Angeles, you have such a huge viewership of the Spanish-language stations," he said.

But Mulholland insists the Democrats are far from hitting the panic button. "Never was -- not today, not tomorrow. We've got 'em right where we want 'em."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Al Gore California George W. Bush