California turns its back

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PRESIDENT George Bush's attempts to revive doubts about Bill Clinton's alleged Vietnam draft-dodging appear to be falling on deaf ears in one of the key states in the battle for the White House. Most Californians, who control a fifth of the electoral-college votes needed to win the presidency, could not care less about the issue.

Three out of four Californians said the Democratic presidential nominee's draft record would have no effect on their vote, according to a highly regarded Los Angeles Times poll published yesterday. More heartening still for the Democrats, the poll also gave Mr Clinton a 21-point lead in the state - six points ahead of his latest nationwide lead. The gap remains the same even after adding the name of the once-idolised Ross Perot, who will remain on the ballot here in November. The findings, which show Mr Clinton with 57 per cent to Mr Bush's 36 per cent, will prove deeply alarming to the Bush camp, which has been continuing to campaign in California amid growing forecasts that it is a lost cause. Richard Nixon, a Californian by birth, has recently been pressing the Bush camp to abandon the state, and to concentrate on the four critical swing-states - Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey.

But so far the Republicans have been unwilling to take the former president's advice, mindful of the difficulty of winning the election without it. No Republican in recent history has won the presidency without carrying the state.

'It is extraordinarily significant,' said Mark Baldassari, a leading Californian pollster. 'If a Republican president running against a Southern ticket cannot do well in the electoral-vote rich state of California, his chances of winning the presidency are extremely slim.'

The Times poll also indicates that critical electoral weapons in the President's arsenal are, in fact, hopeless duds: only 2 per cent of Californians said they were interested in hearing the candidates talk about foreign policy, suggesting that Mr Bush's attempts to claim the credit for ending the Cold War are disbelieved or regarded as insignificant.