Bush flounders in battleground state of California

Republicans find the going harder than expected in the golden state as voters disdain a lacklustre candidate
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George W Bush was in California the other day, doing his best to meet some of those "real people" he has defined as the constituency he has to reach to win November's presidential election.

George W Bush was in California the other day, doing his best to meet some of those "real people" he has defined as the constituency he has to reach to win November's presidential election.

It was a characteristic display of aw-shucks populism tinged with bumbling uncertainty. The Republican candidate walked into an old-fashioned drugstore in Orange County, stepped behind the counter and began flipping burgers. Not a bad touch.

Then he had his photograph taken with the real chef - who looked more bewildered than honoured - shook hands with everyone including a mannequin (hardly a "real person", even if it raised a laugh), and woefully undertipped for his vanilla milkshake, which turned out to be chocolate because the waitress muffed his order.

Fortunately for Mr Bush, Orange County is one of the most conservative areas in the country, so nobody much minded the clumsiness. But the episode encapsulated a deeper, uncomfortable truth about his campaign: for all his raw charm, something justisn't working.

In California, the single most important state with 54 presidential electoral votes at stake, he is even less effective than in the rest of the country. He isn't winning over the voters on the issues, and he is not impressing them with his personality. That explains why opinion polls are putting him at least 10 points behind his Democratic rival, Vice-President Al Gore, and why most political analysts have written off his chances of carrying the state.

And yet Mr Bush keeps coming. He was in California for three days last week, spoke to the state Republican Convention by satellite over the weekend and is due back at least twice more before election day.

"I view California as a battleground state," he said, bravely, in his satellite speech. "In a race like this, everything we do matters. Every day matters. And everyone in this room can make a difference." (Another infelicity: he was not in the room himself.)

In reality, a growing body of opinion suggests California is turning into a big sinkhole. The state is too big for the candidate to ignore; apart from his own election, he has five tightly fought congressional races to worry about - races that could make the difference between the Republicans maintaining control of the House of Representatives and losing it.

And yet the more time he spends here, the less he can focus on the real battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida. It's a classic dilemma that has plagued all Republican presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan, and one that is making California Democrats inordinately happy.

Bob Mulholland, a state party spokesman, crowed: "We' ve got him where we want him. The Republicans are so terrified of headlines saying 'Bush Jr Abandons California' that they are spending $500m a week on television ads and keep yanking their candidate back here. That's the way we like it - make 'em spend two dollars for every dollar we spend, and still lose."

Some California Republicans are voicing concerns that Mr Bush isn't helping them enough. An aide to the struggling Republican senatorial candidate Tom Campbell, complained last week that Mr Bush's television adverts should be more aggressive.

Mr Bush's presence in California is not entirely a lost cause. If nothing else, he can use his fund-raising prowess to help congressional candidates replenish their war chests - a crucial factor in a state with the highest television advertising rates in the nation.

But it seems there will be nowhere near enough of Mr Bush to spread around, no matter how many mannequins he shakes hands with between now and November 7.