Although Sen. Bob Dole appears to have the Republican presidential nomination sewn up--and in fact might clinch it in California on March 26--GOP rival Patrick J. Buchanan has staked out the state as the last big stand of the 1996 primary season.
"If I could win the California primary, I could get everything," commentator Buchanan said during a stop in Louisiana on Friday. "We'd walk into that convention and get everything I want. Even if we lose the nomination, we get everything."
Dole may get the nomination, he said, but "we will get the fence along the border on illegal immigration. We will get our right-to-life plank. We will get everything."
That is something the forces of Kansas Sen. Dole are determined to prevent--to keep Buchanan and his conservative followers from turning the national convention in San Diego into a raucous party-splitting debate over ideological issues such as abortion, illegal immigration and U.S. sovereignty.
One longtime Republican strategist said that Dole cannot afford to coast to the convention even though there is little question that the nomination will be his.
"He's got to bury Buchanan," said Stuart Spencer, who managed presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. "You've got to have enough control of the convention so that when Buchanan speaks, he's on at midnight."
Meanwhile, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes postponed for a week his planned California media campaign, which had been scheduled to start this past week, according to campaign manager Bill Dal Col.
Bill Saracino of Sacramento, the western coordinator for Forbes, said he has been trying to arrange Forbes' travel in California on March 20 to 26, but that nothing would be announced until after Tuesday's Super Tuesday primaries in the South.
"Call me next Wednesday," Saracino told a reporter.
Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll said the lack of a major Forbes presence in California would make it difficult to deny Dole victory in the state. If the GOP primary vote is split almost among three candidates, there would be the possibility of Buchanan or Forbes slipping through to victory, he said.
Otherwise, added DiCamillo, "the only way for Dole to lose would be if the party was in a protest-type mood."
If Dole continues his winning pace the next two weeks, he could come into California just a few delegates shy of the 996 needed to win the nomination at the GOP national convention in San Diego in August.
The winner of the March 26 balloting gets all 165 California delegates, the largest bloc of any state, and that could put Dole over the top.
Marty Wilson, Dole's California campaign manager, agreed with Spencer's comments about controlling the convention.
"That makes good sense," he said in an interview. "Buchanan's rhetoric seems to be getting more inflammatory, not less. He's running a crusade, not a campaign."
The more delegates Buchanan has, the greater his ability to win seats on critical committees such as the Platform Committee, and the more influence his forces might have on the convention agenda.
The California campaign could take a critical turn depending on whether Forbes decides to remain in the race and wage a multimillion-dollar television campaign.
If not, Buchanan and Dole might be left with an old-fashioned stump war during the March 20-26 period, traveling up and down the state speaking to rallies and Rotary Clubs and visiting factory gates.
So far, Buchanan does not have the money for a California TV campaign. And Dole is expected to be close to the federal spending limit for the primaries by the middle of March, triggering speculation that he might not be able to spend anything on a California media campaign.
Wilson said the Dole campaign has not decided yet whether to run television ads in California.
State Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), Buchanan's California campaign director, said he would welcome a battle that is not dominated by television commercials.
"I hope it's a ground war," he said. "We really believe that if Dole and Buchanan are on an equal footing, we'll nail California for Pat Buchanan. We've got the grass-roots out there."
Buchanan plans to come to California on March 19, the day of the big Midwest primaries, and remain for a full week, Mountjoy said.
Buchanan won 26% of the vote in the 1992 Republican primary when he challenged then-President George Bush's reelection campaign.
In the latest independent statewide poll, Dole led the GOP field in support from likely Republican voters with 27% to Buchanan's 18%. Forbes had 12%.
Wilson said Dole's schedule still was being worked out by the candidate's national staff, but he pledged that Dole would have "an aggressive campaign, as if we were going to run Bob Dole for governor."
Marty Wilson was the manager of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's 1994 reelection campaign in which Wilson came from behind to win an easy victory over Democrat Kathleen Brown. (Marty Wilson and Pete Wilson are not related.)
Gov. Wilson challenged Dole in 1995 by entering the Republican presidential contest, but quit the race in late September. Marty Wilson said the two--who are former U.S. Senate colleagues--remain good friends.
Gov. Wilson is Dole's general campaign chairman in California and plans to travel the state extensively with Dole, Marty Wilson said.
Two debates have been tentatively scheduled in California on March 22 and March 24. But Marty Wilson indicated that Dole might not participate.
"There has been a lot of talk about debates, but from a California perspective, it's not something we're pushing," he said.
Both sides indicated that the California economy and world trade would be a major flash point for the candidates in California.
Buchanan, who has portrayed himself as the friend of workers, has blistered Dole for his support for such trade pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement, contending that they result in exporting American jobs abroad and the erosion of American sovereignty.
Mountjoy said Buchanan would address the jobs-trade issue across California.
"His message is really one that covers all the blue-collar people here in California, where people don't like his trade message," Mountjoy said.
But Marty Wilson said the Dole campaign is eager to meet Buchanan head-on on that issue because, he said, about one job in four in California is related to international trade.
Mountjoy also said that Buchanan has an edge in terms of the enthusiasm of his grass-roots volunteers and motivation to vote.
"You've got to drive your vote to the polls," he said. "I don't know that Dole excites people enough to get a big turnout."
Dole will not have the advantage of a state party structure working in his behalf as has occurred in some other states, Mountjoy said, because state party officials are prohibited from taking sides in primary elections.
In Louisiana, Buchanan said that in California, "I've got some very strong issues there. People know that I stood with them on [Proposition] 187, that I'm the strongest man in America on the issue of illegal immigration. And there's a lot of folks out there who are concerned about the loss of sovereignty and the NAFTA issue."
Marty Wilson acknowledged that Dole would have to campaign vigorously in California if he hopes for a convincing win--a win of the sort that would mute the demands that Buchanan hopes to take to the convention.
"He's got to get attached to some California issues to help shape his persona," Wilson said, specifically listing illegal immigration, affirmative action and the economy including jobs and trade.
Times political writer Robert Shogan and staff writer Bob Sipchen contributed to this story.