Sometimes, in the heat of a presidential campaign, what a candidate says is less important than where he says it. Witness Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore's appearance Tuesday at Golden West College here.
This was not a location picked to highlight what has emerged as Gore's main talking points--creating jobs, improving education and protecting the environment. Rather, the setting was selected because it is located deep behind enemy lines--in Republican-dominated Orange County.
With recent local polls suggesting that many of the county's voters are deeply dissatisfied with President Bush's economic record--and thus inclined to support Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton--Gore wasted little time in his efforts to fuel those feelings.
"You have seen right here in Orange County the results of the (Bush) policy," Gore said to the delight of a youthful and cheering crowd that outshouted pockets of hecklers waving Bush signs.
And playing off the county's reputation as the linchpin for GOP success in California, Gore added: "You here in Orange County can make the difference in the whole campaign. You here in Orange County can send a message to the entire country. You here in Orange County have been taken for granted. You in Orange County can win this race."
In the waning weeks of a campaign, strategists are careful to showcase their candidates against the best possible backdrops. Thus, the decision by the Clinton/Gore camp to send the vice presidential nominee into what has been an unassailable GOP stronghold reflects the Democrats' growing confidence of their prospects in Orange County.
A poll early this month showed Clinton and Bush in a virtual dead heat in Orange County, which for decades delivered the knockout punch that sent Republican candidates on to victory in California. In 1988, for instance, Bush got 68% of the vote in the county, more than enough to offset heavy Democratic support for the party ticket in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Republican strategists are counting on just that sort of magic again this year to help Bush capture the state, but time is running preciously short.
"There's something going on in this county that I think everyone senses," said Howard Adler, Orange County Democratic Party chairman. "I'm not going to go out on a limb and say that we're going to win Orange County outright, but I think Bill Clinton will at least cut the margin to its narrowest since Franklin Roosevelt took the county." There was no mistaking that the Gore camp felt energized by its 12-hour visit to California.
Gore, however, was not so euphoric that he could ignore the fact that Orange County still is home to many Bush-Quayle sympathizers. "I know that they still have some people who are enthusiastic for more of the same," he said. "Make no mistake about it. It's going to be a hard fight."
On several occasions during the rally, a knot of students wielding Bush/Quayle placards rose up on the periphery of the crowd with shouts of "Bush! Bush! Bush!" Invariably, they were drowned out by chants from Gore supporters. And at times, tensions between the rival camps flared into shouts and threats.
"These liberal Democrats are just getting hostile," said David Carlson, 18, a Golden West student.
Mike Dugan, 18, said he and the other Bush supporters were "just standing here supporting Bush/Quayle. It's really the only choice when it comes down to it. Liberalism doesn't work. Clinton is a communist, Al Gore is a communist."
Gore supporters saw it differently. "They're being very obnoxious," said Cynthia Rogers of Dana Point as she stood with a raised Clinton/Gore placard in front of the contingent of youthful Republicans. "They're threatening violence. They said if we don't lower our signs there will be trouble."
Up on the stage, which was crowded into a cramped courtyard of a school building, Gore did his best to make the case against the Republican ticket. "It's unbelievable that they could slash education, turn their backs on environmental protections, turn their backs on job training, turn their backs on Americans who need health care and preside over the biggest increase in the budget deficit in the nation's history," Gore said in his speech. "What are they doing, expecting the American people to say, 'Four more years'? That sounds more like a threat than a promise."
He also offered a warmer-than-usual welcome to Republicans leaning toward the Democratic ticket.
In most of his campaign appearances, Gore tosses out a broad-brush appeal for support across party lines. But in Orange County, where several prominent Republicans crossed party lines last month to back Clinton, he gave an extra ounce of effort in making that plea.
Among those in the VIP section was Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, a longtime GOP stalwart who declared her allegiance last month to the Democratic ticket largely because of concern over Bush's anti-abortion stance. And Gore made a point of mentioning by name Bob Nelson, the Orange County head of Republicans for Clinton-Gore.
Some students responded by waving their placards--which read "GOP for Clinton-Gore," and "Another Republican for Gore."--
"It's impossible to visit Orange County in this campaign without feeling a new burst of optimism and enthusiasm," Gore said in an interview on board his campaign plane after the campus rally. "Our supporters there are fired up and are determined to carry Orange County. You can't help but get a boost from something like that."
Buoyed by his visit, Gore drew upon it in comments later to voters in Colorado. Like Orange County, the state has strong ties to the GOP, having voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election since 1968. But this year, Democrats are optimistic about carrying Colorado.
"We just came from Orange County, California," Gore told the 1,500 people attending an afternoon rally in downtown Pueblo, Colo. "You know, it's supposed to be one of the most Republican areas of the entire country.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you should have seen the crowd in Orange County. We are running dead even there," he said with a grin. "We are getting a lot of Republicans for Clinton-Gore and a lot of independents, as well as Democrats."
Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.