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Dole and the Duke: Just the Ticket?

Chatting with former Gov. George Deukmejian at a Bob Dole campaign event last week reminded me that in California, you don’t need charisma to win elections.

Dullness alone won’t cost Dole California’s 54 electoral votes, one-fifth the number needed to win the presidency.

Dull and Duke seemed synonymous in the 1980s. Yet the middle-aged Republican from Long Beach twice was elected governor in a state that celebrates entertainment and youth. When Deukmejian left office, Californians replaced him with another GOP eye-glazer, Pete Wilson.

Deukmejian--in his customary dark suit, white shirt and wingtips--was standing alone sipping coffee from a paper cup when the Dole campaign caravan arrived last Wednesday morning at a neighborhood park in Redondo Beach. We yakked casually for a few moments, then other reporters sauntered over. Notebooks and tape recorders soon came out, more reporters rushed in, and suddenly we were engulfed by TV crews.

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How can Dole carry California when he’s now so far behind? “It will take a minimum of $10 million, probably more. . . . He should be here at least once or twice a month before the [August] convention. . . . But it’s very, very doable.”

Deukmejian knows that GOP comebacks in California are not entirely pipe dreams. He rallied from even further behind in his first gubernatorial race to edge out then-L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. Still, Deukmejian is honorary state chairman of Dole’s campaign, so you wouldn’t expect him to pronounce the senator a political corpse.

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Then a question was asked that elicited a truly unexpected answer. “How would you advise Dole to handle CCRI?"--the ballot measure that sponsors call the California Civil Rights Initiative, which would bar racial and gender preferences in public hiring, contracting and student admissions. The GOP hopes it will bring out conservative voters in November.

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“I don’t think he should get much involved in that,” Deukmejian said. “It’s not very helpful for a presidential candidate to get involved in state initiatives.”

“Furthermore,” he continued, “I don’t think that issue should be seen as a partisan issue. If the policy-molders of either party get too far out in front, I don’t think it will be in the best interests of the state. . . . If it’s not handled properly, it could create further divisions in communities, and I’m concerned about that.”

Wilson is one of the initiative’s most outspoken promoters. And Dole has endorsed it. What’s Deukmejian’s position? “I really haven’t made my decision yet.”

Smiling, he added: “I’m just standing around having a cup of coffee.”

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I’m standing there watching and listening and being struck by a nagging notion: If Bob Dole is serious about trying to pin down President Clinton in this state--and if he’s really thinking about choosing a California running mate--George Deukmejian just might be the ticket.

A Dole-Duke ticket. They’d need to make clear to the rest of the nation that this is George, the “Iron Duke,” not David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader.

But Deukmejian offers character, integrity and ethnic appeal. He’s a Washington outsider. He was a reasonably successful governor--at least the public thought so. In his final year, he had a 52% job approval rating, according to The Times Poll. He’ll be 68 Thursday but looks a lot younger.

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Dole and G. Duke are in sync philosophically. On some issues, Deukmejian may be more moderate. He supports abortion in cases of rape, incest or substantial health threat to the mother. He signed the state’s ban on assault weapons. But on taxes and crime, he’s bedrock conservative.

Deukmejian was on George Bush’s short list of potential veeps in 1988 but took himself off, refusing to turn over his office to a Democratic lieutenant governor. Privately, he was weary of politics--he’d also been a legislator and attorney general--and longed to make big bucks as a lawyer, which he now has.

Neither Deukmejian nor any Californian likely would carry the state for Dole; he’d have to do that mostly on his own. But Clinton couldn’t afford the gamble. He’d be forced to campaign more here and spend extra millions, thus shorting other states and making them competitive for Dole.

Other potential California running mates have problems Deukmejian doesn’t: Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, untested in a top-ticket race; Gov. Wilson blew it running for president; Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach--unheard of outside Orange County.

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“Deukmejian’s solid. He doesn’t make mistakes,” says a former aide, veteran consultant Sal Russo. “He’d be great. It has a ring to it if you’re a risk taker.”

Maybe what Dole needs is a dull guy to pump some excitement into his California campaign.


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