Zschau Rally : They Came Mostly to See Reagan

Times Staff Writers

Nose pressed to a chain-link fence, Lyle Patrick, 19, waved a fistful of miniature American flags Monday and yelled as a drab green helicopter landed in the Pacific Amphitheatre parking lot.

"There he is! There he is! I know he sees me! Rah, Ronny!" Patrick shouted as he and several dozen people near him jostled for a better view.

President Ronald Reagan came to Costa Mesa Monday afternoon for the last campaign rally of the season--an election-eve gathering for Republican statewide candidates, especially Senate hopeful Ed Zschau.

But if getting Zschau elected was the President's goal, many in the crowd of 8,500--more than half of whom were high school students--expressed a slightly different reason for being there.

Rarely did they mention Zschau. Rather, rally-goers said again and again, they came for a once-in-a-lifetime experience--a chance to see the President of the United States.

Took Her Three Sons

"How many people living in an area like this can say they've seen the President?" said Candy Rice, a Costa Mesa mother who took her three young sons to the rally.

Thomas Barr, a fourth-grade teacher from College Park Elementary School in Costa Mesa, brought his entire class--28 10-year-olds--to see President Reagan.

Event sponsors said that more than 50% of those attending the rally were high school students from Costa Mesa, Estancia and Newport-Harbor high schools. Most of the teen-agers--who waved signs, yelled their approval for various GOP candidates and repeatedly interrupted Reagan's remarks with cheers--clearly enjoyed their afternoon off from school.

"It's exciting," said Barbi Rodriguez, 17, a cheerleader from Estancia. Asked if she was a Republican, Barbi laughed and replied: "Now I am."

"Hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the President," said Stephen Bauer, 16, from Costa Mesa High. "I think politics is kind of funny, with everybody attacking everybody all the time. But it sure beats being in English class."

However, some students were critical of the decision to let so many of them attend the rally. Jeff Roberts, student body president of Corona del Mar High School, said it was wrong that students at three high schools were given the time off, while only a handful of students from his school were invited to attend.

"I don't think it's fair at all," he said. "We never heard anything about this. I don't think kids should miss school for this. Most of them won't have any say, any vote, in the election anyway because they're under 18."

Sharply critical of the decision to fill the Pacific Amphitheatre with students was Darry Sragow, campaign manager for Zschau's Democratic rival, Sen. Alan Cranston. "There's nothing wrong with having students attend a political event," Sragow said. "But to use students to pack a crowd because a candidate or political figure can't fill a hall is inappropriate."

Criticizes Use of Band

Sragow also characterized as "inappropriate" a Zschau campaign decision to use cheerleaders and bands from Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools for music and cheers as the rally began. The bands played "Hail to the Chief" before Reagan spoke.

Sragow said the question of whether to use students in such a function should be decided on "a continuum. . . . Everybody ought to see the President. Everybody ought to see Sen. Cranston. But what we're talking about is a very highly charged campaign event rather than a presidential address. The rally was called to affect the outcome of the Senate race . . . and an inappropriate and unfair element of duress was placed on the students (when they were asked to attend)."

Several students said they and their classmates had been given the option of attending the GOP event, going to the library or, in some cases, going home early. The overwhelming majority opted to attend the GOP rally.

Although rally-goers entered the amphitheater by passing through metal detectors and were watched by grim-faced Secret Service agents at every corner, early on the rally took on the casual flavor of a baseball game.

Under a blazing sun, people munched popcorn, ate hot dogs and drank soda pop. As the day grew hotter, they fanned themselves with small American flags and folded handpainted "Go Reagan" and "We Love Zschau" signs into large three-cornered hats for shade.

And everywhere there were American flags. They were tucked into baby buggies, shirt pockets and the brims of straw hats--and one young man stuck a flag in each sock.

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