Bush's California Conundrum

Ever since Governor Pete Wilson's immigrant-bashing, school-eviscerating Administration sent the Golden State GOP's fortunes plummeting, California Republicans have been looking for a savior. The answer appeared to be George W. Bush, who promised, unlike his dad and '96 GOP nominee Bob Dole, to mount a fight to the finish in California. But with Bush now struggling for his own political life and Gore holding a double-digit lead in the state, Republicans fear history will repeat itself.

The consequences if Bush were to walk away could be severe for the national GOP's plans to hold the House of Representatives. With just six weeks to go before Election Day, California Democrats are threatening to wrest control of nearly half a dozen GOP-held House seats. If they succeed, the state could single-handedly cost the GOP its shaky House majority.

DRAINING. But does it make sense for Bush to spend his time and money in California? With 18 major media markets, it costs $1.5 million a week just to fill the California airwaves. To fund an active state campaign, he would almost certainly be forced to divert funds from states that are still in play, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. ''It's one of the most difficult decisions the campaign has to make,'' says Scott W. Reed, who managed Dole's 1996 Presidential campaign.

Bush supporters claim the candidate has already decided to stage a Texas-size fight in California. ''He's going to compete aggressively to win the state,'' says Bush California Chairman Gerald L. Parsky.

The coattails would certainly help. As the number of voting minorities swells and districts lean more Democratic, many GOPers face neck-and-neck races against moderate Democrats. State Assemblyman James Cunneen, vying for the Silicon Valley seat vacated by Republican Tom Campbell, is facing an unexpectedly strong bid from Democratic State Assemblyman and Labor pal Mike Honda. And Representative James E. Rogan, a Republican whose district includes part of the San Fernando Valley and L.A. 'burbs, is taking a beating from Democratic State Senator Adam Schiff. ''As tight as things are, whether the Bush campaign stays here is of particular concern,'' says Rogan campaign manager Jason Roe. ''The X-factor is going to be the strength of the Presidential campaign.''

The mood is far removed from just a year ago, when George W. was polling well with women and Latinos nationwide. It was with those numbers in mind that some 30 California Republican leaders urged him to run. ''The thought was that if we could get a GOP nominee who could get those two voter groups, that could help us out in California,'' says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant. But Bush hasn't been able to close in on Gore's edge with women and Hispanics in the state. Today, Gore leads by 34 points with Latinos and 21 points with women.

DAMAGE CONTROL. Worried GOP leaders say they hope Bush at least will focus on the California Congressional districts that are at risk. But on his most recent swing through the state Sept. 13 and 14, the candidate stuck to solid GOP turf, stumping in Orange County and San Diego and boosting his war chest with a $1 million fund-raiser in L.A. While the trip did include an appeal to minorities--a rally at Orange County's Little Saigon--it did little to woo crucial Latino votes.

On Sept. 7, the RNC began an appeal to independents and swing voters with a statewide television ad campaign that focuses on Social Security and education. With $2.5 million in the bank, the party plans to increase its TV spending every week until November. The Bush camp says it will complement the RNC ads with its own media buy next month. In contrast, GOP loyalists point out that Gore hasn't returned to the state since his Aug. 17 acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, some House gopers are bracing for Bush to go awol. ''If Bush doesn't run in California, that means Gore doesn't run. So it's a mixed bag,'' says an upbeat Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. A mixed bag? More like California dreaming.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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Bush: Is the Problem the Message--or the Messenger?

Bush's California Conundrum

TABLE: What Hangs in the Balance

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