California dreaming

Buoyant in statewide polls, Bush takes his campaign to a state few thought he had any chance of winning. Until now.

Published October 31, 2000 7:12PM (EST)

At a Monday taping of NBC's "The Tonight Show," Gov. George W. Bush presents Jay Leno with a Los Angeles Times headline from Nov. 8:

"Bush Wins!" it says.

He means it.

Muggin' and preenin' for 700 or so faithful at an indoor rally at the Burbank Airport Hilton & Convention Center earlier, Bush says he's mighty confident that he's gonna win California. On stage with his former primary rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Texas governor even backs up his boast with numbers from the California primary.

"The senator and I's vote total was greater than that of Al Gore and Bill Bradley!" Bush says.

"There's gonna be a lotta shocked people on November the 7th! Like the pundits, who don't understand what's happening here in California! The pundits are like our opponent, takin' California for granted!"

There are other, more coherently described reasons for Bush's bluster. A Los Angeles Times poll last week indeed indicated that Vice President Al Gore's lead here has narrowed from double digits to 7 percentage points.

Thus Bush's larger point is correct, and, thus, after not having visited the state since Sept. 20, Gore's returning to the Golden State on Tuesday. Like Bush, Gore's here to appear on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" -- but he's also here to shore up a state that he shouldn't even be thinking about, much less worrying about, seven days before the election.

As the rally kicks in at around 3:45 p.m., one longtime GOP advance man sneers that Richard Nixon drew 50,000 at a similar event in 1972, and Ronald Reagan drew around 20,000.

But both men were Californians, of course, and California was far more Republican at the time. However small Bush's crowd might be by comparison, they are pumped. More so than the average Gore crowd, it seems.

McCain steps up and cites Reagan himself, reminding the crowd that the Gore campaign's strategy of the hour -- calling into question Bush's readiness for the job -- was also used against Reagan. "There was another governor of a big state who Democrats said wasn't experienced enough!" McCain says.

On ABC News' "This Week with Sam and Cokie" on Sunday, Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said, "I don't think Governor Bush is ready -- based on his experience, his record, his proposals in this campaign -- to be the kind of president that the American people need at this point in our history."

McCain rebuts that point on Monday, calling it the "latest sort of desperate tactic," and assures the crowd that the Gore campaign purportedly thinks Bush is "fully prepared."

Introduced like a WWF star, Bush and his wife Laura join McCain and his wife Cindy on the platform. Bush jokingly refers to their bitter primary fight. "Nothin' like a little competition to sharpen up the message," Bush says.

Cindy -- who felt some of those sharp messages personally as Bush allies slammed her for her past struggle with painkillers as well as her husband's numerous "illegitimate children" -- smiles. That's all ancient history now. At least in front of crowds.

"People don't want four more years of Clinton-Gore!" Bush cries. "People want a fresh start after a season of cynicism!" He says he's here in California to "ask for the voit, uh, the vote." He promises to tackle education. "Children are gonna learn! Latino children are gonna learn! People-who-just-arrived-in-America children are gonna learn!"

Turning to a bleacher under the sign "Bringing America Together," Bush picks out the carefully screened "tax family" who will benefit from his tax plan more so than from Gore's. They're easy to pick out -- they're the only African-American family in the joint.

Ken and Sharon Ashford and their three children pay $7,198 in federal income taxes, Bush says. The crowd boos. Bush does not mention that the family makes $72,000 a year. The Ashfords will save $3,390 under the Bush plan, but only $390 under Gore's, he says.

Some time ago, the Washington Post reported on the rigorous screening process Bush "tax families" now have to go through before they can be paraded on the stump. The Gore campaign was showing that many Bush families would actually save more money with the vice president's targeted tax cuts than they would under the Texas governor's plan. Now, in order to avoid such potential embarrassments, Bush tax families can't have any children under the age of 1, or any kids in day care or college. No one can attend night school. The family must also have an annual income somewhere between $35,000 and $70,000. And it must have "no substantial savings outside of 401(k)," according to a GOP memo in search of a New Mexico tax family.

The Bush "tax family" requirements, the Post pointed out, eliminate 85 percent of the families in that income bracket.

No matter. Who knows such things? The Ashfords will be better off under Bush, so the crowd says: HOORAY!

As it does when Bush sticks up for the gay-banning Boy Scouts, lauding the times when a "Boy Scout leader or Girl Scout leader puts their arm around you and says, 'I'd like to teach you values.'"

A man in the audience with a shirt that says "Communist Chinese for Al Gore for President" likes this line a lot.

"We're gonna send a message to the rest of the country!" Bush says. "California! California is back!"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore California George W. Bush