California day-dreaming for weary Dole

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

The weary Kansan has been going through the motions for the California primary, now dubbed "Superfluous Tuesday". Senator Bob Dole capped three days of campaigning with a trip to San Quentin prison, home to the state's only gas chamber, to demand faster executions.

"There's one thing the American people understand: that crime has gotten out of hand," he said, accusing Bill Clinton of blocking efforts to shorten death-row appeals and putting soft-hearted judges on the bench. "We are not punishing the criminals; we punish the victim's families."

Touching all the usual bases - a visit to the B-2 bomber factory to talk tough on defence, the obligatory jaunt to the San Diego border to harangue illegal immigrants - Mr Dole made Mr Clinton his chief opponent in tomorrow's vote. He steadfastly ignored his theoretical rival, Pat Buchanan. But if the opening shots of the national campaign are being fired in California, Mr Clinton's prospects of re-election have seldom looked so good.

Mr Dole has struggled to make an impact in a state where his grey personality seems out of tune with West Coast culture. California moved its primary forward by two months to try to give it a serious voice in picking the Republican candidate.

But Mr Dole on almost any count already has enough delegates to secure the nomination, and seems certain yet again to clobber Mr Buchanan, who, unable to afford a plane, has paraded noisily around California in a bus. But his talk of a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party is falling flatter by the day, with polls giving him less than 20 per cent.

A record low turn-out is expected. Even minor local races have generated more excitement than what one columnist called the "yawning meaninglessness" of the primary campaign. Tomorrow's ballot will test how District Attorney Gil Garcetti, blamed for blunders in the prosecution of OJ Simpson, fares against five challengers. There are the added distractions of Proposition 197, which would bring back cougar hunting after two fatal attacks on joggers. And the "terrible 200s", a series of propositions to limit attorneys' fees in civil lawsuits, have seen wealthy trial lawyers fighting to hold on to their livelihood.

For Mr Dole, California presents a quandary: it has 54 of the electoral- college votes in November, and Mr Clinton would almost certainly lose the White House without it. President George Bush is thought to have made a fatal mistake when he ignored the state in his re-election effort in 1992. On the other hand, Mr Clinton has been constantly solicitous about California's concerns, visiting the state a record 23 times and sipping Chardonnay with Barbra Streisand and other members of Hollywood's elite.

Mr Dole might be well advised to cede it to the Democrats and concentrate his energies elsewhere. Immigration is still a raw issue for Californians, who last year voted by a solid majority for Proposition 187, a plan to bar schools and public medicine to illegal immigrants. But Mr Clinton, with much fanfare, has already doubled the numbers of the Border Patrol and stepped up immigration controls at airports. Mr Dole has flirted with the idea of naming the state's Attorney-General, Dan Lundgren, as his vice-presidential nominee, but even locally General Colin Powell is the only popular choice.

His attempt to strike a stand at San Quentin came on the day that Republicans in the House of Representatives reversed the popular assault-weapons ban, which was sponsored by the California Senator Dianne Feinstein, partly in response to massacres like the one at a northern California elementary school in 1989. When Mr Dole visited the California factory which produces the scandalously expensive B-2 bomber, he hinted he might double production of what is regarded as a Cold War white elephant.

"I understand the dangers of an uncertain world," he said. "Maybe President Clinton doesn't." But California's rebounding economy, led by a hi-tech and entertainment boom, has begun to replace lost defence jobs. No one on the production line seemed to take the promise of the Senate Majority Leader, the consummate politician, very seriously.

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