THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: Dole faces disappointment as he gambles on the Golden State

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The Independent Online
Here, in a terraced garden shaded by palms and perfumed by roses, Bob Dole's mentor lies at peace at last. Richard Nixon's grave is just a few feet from the white-painted house which his father built with his own hands in 1912, and where the 37th president was born a year later. Today it is part of the Nixon Library and Museum. There, visitors may re-live that extraordinary career, and listen to the gravelly Nixon voice expounding his political philosophy.

In his way, Mr Dole revered Nixon. At the funeral here on 27 April 1994, he wept as he delivered a eulogy remembering "the greatest statesman of the second half of the 20th century". The two men were similar, both of humble origin, both overcame adversity. And right now in his difficult, perhaps already doomed quest for the White House, Mr Dole seems to be acting on one of the master's dicta, echoing forth from an old film clip: "If you risk nothing, you will lose nothing. But if you risk nothing, you will win nothing either."

If he is to win the presidency, Mr Dole must carry California. To do that, he must sweep Orange County and its communities like Yorba Linda. Democrats point to the place as home of some of the worst products of America - among them Nixon, John Wayne and Disneyland. For Republicans, however, Orange County is the ultimate stronghold, a seedbed of votes and conservative values first cultivated by Nixon, expanded by Ronald Reagan, only to be partly squandered by George Bush.

Like Orange County and all of southern California, Yorba Linda has changed utterly this century. Only 200 people lived there when Frank Nixon paid just over $2,000 (pounds 1,300) for nine acres of land, in the dream of growing a citrus orchard. The venture failed for want of water. Today the community is home to 50,000, a suburban Utopia of brilliant green lawns, courtesy of the miracles of modern irrigation.

But for all its creature comforts, Orange County thinks of itself as ordinary heartland USA. It believes in patriotism and the gritty, old fashioned work ethic of people like Nixon's father. Every hour from somewhere within the presidential library complex a clock chimes "God Bless America". It could be a summons to the "silent majority" Richard Nixon once so skilfully identified, in Orange County and beyond.

Now as he seeks to rouse those same troops, Mr Dole is taking his mentor's advice. "If you thought I was tough last night, that was just a warm-up," he told an enthusiastic crowd at Riverside, the day after his combative performance in the second presidential debate on Wednesday. Riverside, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, is the sort of swing community Mr Dole must carry. At that moment too his wife Elizabeth was spreading the word in North California, while a heavy Dole advertising blitz was about to hit the airwaves. After weeks of wavering, Dole is gambling all on the Golden State.

As of now he is still well behind - by 10 points in one poll, by 12 in another. If Bill Clinton loses votes to the consumer rights advocate, Ralph Nader, who is on the ballot as a Green Party candidate, Mr Dole will lose at least as many to Ross Perot. But California alone represents 54 electoral college votes, a fifth of the 270 required to win. So California it is.

Unfortunately however, not even Orange County is safe. As Mr Dole was in Riverside, Mr Clinton was addressing an enthusiastic rally of 10,000 people in Santa Ana. The latest poll shows the President leading among all voters in the county by 43 to 41 per cent, and just a few days before 20 prominent state Republicans announced they were supporting Mr Clinton.

The reason, they explained, was Mr Dole's opposition to abortion rights and gun control, and his hostility to strong environmental controls. That stance may thrill Republican core constituencies elsewhere, but not here. Mr Dole is seen as stiff and uninspiring. A friend explained: "He just isn't a California sort of guy." The rule of thumb is that a victorious Republican candidate must carry Orange County by 300,000 votes to offset the entrenched Democratic majorities in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles. On present trends, Mr Dole will be fortunate to win by a tenth of that.

Such doubts of course do not disturb the faithful. "Yes, I am very conservative," says Natalia Klugman, president of the Yorba Linda Republican women's association. "I'm also very optimistic. A big surprise is coming."

Pinned on the wall is the invitation to the California Republican party's Dole 1996 victory rally on 5 November. But a better indication of the mood may have been a headline in the conservative Orange County Register, lamenting Mr Dole's straying from the true path: "What party does Bob Dole belong to anyway?" Such is his problem even among Republicans - too conservative for the moderates, too moderate for the conservatives.

But Mr Dole can take heart from another of Nixon's principles. Never quit, the former president declared to the White House staff after he announced his resignation. "Greatness only comes when you take some knocks and disappointments." Knocks and disappointments probably await Bob Dole, maybe even in Orange County.