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.
"You come out of Orange County, where all that energy was so evident, believing what you went in there believing," said Marla Romash, Gore's press secretary. "We came out convinced that people in Orange County are angry at George Bush and (Vice President) Dan Quayle and support Bill Clinton and Al Gore."
Even allowing for her partisan enthusiasm, 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."
But 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, he gave an extra ounce of effort in making that plea. And he 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.
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."