Out of the West: Bush stops California scheming

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The Independent Online
LOS ANGELES - The local grapevine has been simmering with speculation that George Bush is about to abandon the election battle in California. No talk shows, no rallies or speeches to the party faithful, no big television ads. Zip.

Mr Bush, who at the last count was 34 points behind Bill Clinton in the statewide polls, knows he has no chance of winning here. So he has decided to fly in the face of pundits who maintain that a candidate cannot get to the White House unless he secures California's 54 electoral-college votes, a fifth of those needed to win.

He's pulling out, hoping he can make up for the lost votes by investing his resources on more fruitful turf, for instance the critical Midwest industrial states of Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. From now on, or so the story goes, he will rarely venture into America's most populous state and only then to tap his very rich Californian industrial friends for funds.

For an Angeleno rumour - and this city mills through implausible stories at a tremendous rate - this is above average, as it does seem to have some grounds. Yesterday the Bush team launched its first campaign commercials of the season, but none was transmitted here. The Democrats have squandered big leads before, and they also will be mindful that the Perot phenomenon has proved the electorate is now extraordinarly volatile. But Clinton's lead in California is larger than any ever recorded since the Field Institute, the state's leading pollsters, began polling 50 years ago.

If the rumour-mill is right and Bush has decided to forget California, then loud alarm bells must be ringing among his supporters nationwide. The Republicans have not won the presidency in any election this century without winning the state. 'It would be truly historic if they pulled off an election without California,' said Mark DiCamillo, associate director of Fields. 'I doubt that they could do it.' Other experts disagree, arguing that Bush could still muster enough votes elsewhere but they all emphasise that it would ensure an extremely close contest.

The more optimistically inclined Republicans draw solace from their belief that, however rebellious they are now, their supporters will be loyal on the day. They point to the fact that the Republicans have won California in nine of the last 10 general elections, even though the state has more registered Democratic voters. But in seven of these victories the results were distorted by the presence of a Californian on the ticket, either as vice-president or president. The waspish Bush and the accident-prone Dan Quayle might as well come from Venus. Bush, in particular, has never liked California, being unable to fathom its bizarre mix of social liberalism and conservativism, and was never hugely popular at the best of times.

And these, most Californians will tell you, are the worst of times. Unemployment stands above the national average, at 9.8 per cent. In the past year, many thousands of jobs in defence and aerospace have been lost to Pentagon cuts. Housing sales are at rock-bottom. Tourism is sharply down because of the Los Angeles riots, and the state government is handing out IOUs in lieu of payment because the (Democratic) legislature is at loggerheads with the (Republican) governor over a savagely cost-cutting budget aimed at remedying a dollars 14bn (pounds 7.3bn) state deficit. For once, there is a feeling that this buoyant, trend-setting society may have snagged on the rocks.

Sensing Republican blood, the Democrats are circling menacingly. On Monday Al Gore, their vice-presidential nominee, paid a visit to a factory in Orange County, a traditional Reagan stronghold which would normally be a no-go zone for Democrats or, at best, a waste of time. After making his standard-issue speech to a group of workers, the sleek-looking Gore summoned alleged former Bush-voters from the audience and, with all the panache of Oprah Winfrey, began interviewing them about why they had now turned against the President.

Statewide, the answer to that question is resoundingly clear. 'The three main issues are economy, economy and economy,' said DiCamillo. 'No matter what happens internationally, I cannot imagine Bush winning without coming up with some very convincing domestic policies.'

Perhaps the degree of anti-Bush sentiment was best illustrated this week by an editorial in the Orange County Register, a staunchly conservative newspaper whose mainly white, prosperous readers include many die-hard Reagan fans. It called for Bush to step down to allow someone else to take up the torch in time to avert defeat in November. According to the woman answering the phone in the editorial director's office, this produced some readers' complaints. But only a few.

For a Republican President to be reviled in Orange County is much like a Wembley crowd cheering Argentina's football team. He may well feel it's time to try his luck in more welcoming territory.