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Bush 300,000-Vote Margin Disappoints County Republicans

Times Political Writer

There is probably only one place in the country where a 300,000-vote victory would be considered narrow. Orange County is that place.

“It was too close. Too close,” Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said Wednesday of Vice President George Bush’s margin of victory in the county.

The county’s vote for Bush exceeded the 250,000-vote margin targeted by his campaign last July, but it was somewhat less than Republican leaders here had come to expect--or at least to hope for--in the final days before the election.

Bush’s statewide margin of 309,000 votes, which added California to the vice president’s column in his sweeping national victory over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, was greatly helped by the votes delivered by heavily Republican Orange County.

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But the county’s vote--which will change a little as the final 30,000 absentee ballots are counted--deprived the local GOP of being able to say that Orange County delivered the crucial edge to Bush in California.

Nonetheless, Bush state campaign director Bill Lacy did not seem disappointed Wednesday.

“We were looking throughout the election at very substantial margins in Orange County,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we realized those margins on Election Day, and I believe we did so.”

In the U.S. Senate race Orange County residents gave Republican incumbent Pete Wilson a much larger margin of victory over his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, than did the state as a whole. Wilson’s Orange County margin was 68.1% to 28.9%, compared to 52.6%-44.2% statewide.

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Two weeks ago, The Times Orange County Poll predicted that Bush would win the county by 67% to 24% over Dukakis, which would have netted him nearly a 400,000-vote margin had there been an 80% turnout. In fact, there was a 73% turnout, and Bush finished with a 67.5% share of the vote in unofficial returns while Dukakis reached 31%, according to Mark Baldassare, who conducted the poll for The Times.

“In the course of the last 2 weeks, in which Dukakis was gaining ground in the state, he also picked up the lion’s share of the undecided vote in Orange County,” Baldassare said Wednesday. This, combined with a lower voter turnout than expected, resulted in Bush getting about 100,000 votes less than he could have expected, the pollster said.

“Still, it was a margin that was unacceptable for Dukakis in terms of his efforts to win the state,” Baldassare said.

Voter margins, quickly forgotten by others in the debris of elective politics, are long remembered by party activists in Orange County.

For example, hardly a leader on either side of the fence does not know that President Reagan took the county in 1984 by an overwhelming 414,000 margin. And it also is widely remembered--with either pride or horror--that U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) pulled off a coup when he lost in Orange County in 1986 by only 176,000 votes.

It is against the backdrop of that Cranston showing that Democrats built their voter effort for Dukakis in Orange County. Following Cranston’s plan, which emphasized one-on-one voter contact, Democrats built an organization for Dukakis that was unmatched recently in local Democratic political history.

By Election Day, they had opened nine regional offices and, in all, contacted about 100,000 Democrats. In the closing weeks, they identified 66,900 “occasional” voters--those who might not normally get to the polls. In the final days, they had spoken to all but 5,201 of them.

“If we hadn’t done that, we would have lost the county by more like 375,000 or 380,000 votes,” said Bob Hattoy, Dukakis’ regional director in Orange County. “We feel we did our job here.”

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Republicans explained their victory in Orange County in several ways. First, of course, they say that Bush’s national campaign was more effective. But beyond that, they built a body of 7,000 volunteers, supplemented with paid workers, that registered voters here, called them about the campaign and got them to the polls.

In all, Republicans spent $104,000 on voter registration alone--about the same budget that Democrats spent on their entire operation in the county. Even at that, it was more than Democrats had spent in Orange County in the memory of anyone involved in Democratic politics locally.


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