TV Chat With the President

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't quite the same as bumping knees with President Bush under the dinner table or touching champagne glasses with the commander in chief in a toast to GOP electoral fortunes.

But it was the next best thing for 70 Republicans who each paid $2,500 Thursday to eat Mexican cuisine served buffet-style at the Tarzana home of banker Al Villalobos as Bush talked to them live from Houston on a big-screen TV.

A rollicking success, said organizers of the fund-raiser, which netted $75,000 for a GOP campaign to get pro-Bush Latinos to vote Nov. 3.

It was one of about three dozen held Thursday night throughout the nation, including four in California, to raise money for the Republican Party, with all the events linked by the wizardry of TV-satellite technology. The Tarzana event was the only one held in a private home, Villalobos said. The others were in hotel ballrooms and other public places.

Thus it was that Bush in Houston and other Republican luminaries, including ex-Presidents Ronald Reagan in Century City and Gerald Ford in Philadelphia and Vice President Dan Quayle in St. Louis, were able to break bread with and chat up thousands of GOP contributors scattered across the nation.

If it seemed a tad too impersonal for some, there was Columba Bush, a First Daughter-in-Law, flown in fresh from campaigning in heavily Latino south Texas.

A native of Mexico, Columba Bush--wife of Jeb Bush--brought a personal touch to the Villalobos affair, where most of the guests were Latinos. Addressing the group in English and Spanish, Columba Bush said that her travels in south Texas had convinced her that "we're going to win."

Among the Latino party-goers were Ray Martin, chief executive officer of Coast Federal Bank; the Rev. Lupe Guzman, a top leader of the Assemblies of God church in Los Angeles County, and real estate attorney Richard Hernandez.

"This a terrific event," Martin said. "It's good to see so many minorities on the Republican bandwagon."

Guzman, who has a son running for Congress on the Republican ticket in East Los Angeles, said she is backing the President with her prayers. "The power of prayers will move mountains," said Guzman, who said she is drawn to the Bush ticket by the President's strong support for family values.

Also present were former Republican Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler with her husband, publicist Paul Clarke. Sending a check but not present was prominent San Fernando Valley Republican Bert Boeckmann.

Although there has been talk of GOP strategists writing off California, which polls say is leaning strongly toward the Democratic presidential nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, the Republicans at Villalobos' home contended that Bush could still win the state.

The President, speaking via satellite from Houston, drew his biggest cheers when he said a Weekly Reader magazine poll of fourth-graders showed him beating Clinton. The poll has been correct in predicting presidential winners since 1956. He jokingly called for "lowering the voting age to 5."

"Let Clinton tear them up with his saxophone on 'Saturday Night Live.' We'll tear them apart on 'Sesame Street.' "

Bush said that after the outpouring of encouragement from supporters, he was heading for the first presidential debate in St. Louis on Sunday "with a full head of steam."

Orchestrating Thursday night's affair was Villalobos, 48, a former copy boy at the Los Angles Herald Examiner and now an investment banker with his own company, ARVCO, who puts together multimillion-dollar investment deals from an office in his 4,500-square-foot Tarzana home.

Villalobos is a GOP heavyweight, one of the party's premier Latino fund-raisers. He was sergeant-at-arms for the California delegation to the GOP convention in Houston this summer, a man who, when he has questions about Quayle's controversial views on single mothers, goes directly to the vice president for answers.

"I discussed Dan's single-parenting views with him personally," Villalobos told a reporter. "And he said, 'Al, you know I didn't mean it the way it was reported.' And I told the vice president that I hoped that was the case because otherwise some of us would find it hard to be supportive of him."

Single-parenting is an issue close to home with Villalobos, who said he shut down his business pursuits for nearly a decade to be "Mr. Mom" to his three children after he and his wife got divorced.

Thursday at Villalobos' home was hectic as caterers dashed around and TV technicians scrambled to set up a satellite dish in the street and plug it into a 60-inch TV in Villalobos' family room and to three rented sets scattered around the house.

Smiling broadly as he stood beside two 4-foot-high bronze elephants in the entryway of his house, Villalobos said, "This has really been a successful event--$75,000 is a substantial amount of money for a little old house party."

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