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California Questions, Answers Mark Debate

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They were a mechanical engineer, a retired Air Force pilot, a teacher, a landlord, a man who described himself as an ex-smoker, a woman who said she was a wife and mother of two sons, and another who mentioned she is unemployed.

They were a cross-section of Southern Californians. On Wednesday, it was their turn to interrogate the two men who would be president in a 90-minute debate that was colored at times by concerns of particular interest in California.

And if their reaction was typical, the final presidential debate of 1996 was good news for Bill Clinton. According to one of the questioners, Oscar Delgado, after the debate the audience members huddled for their own vote on who won.

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Delgado said that, based on a showing of hands, about 60% favored Clinton, 20% gave the nod to Republican Bob Dole and 20% were undecided.

In all, 2,200 adults were interviewed for possible participation in the debate, 800 met the qualifications, 180 accepted the invitation to take part and 113 actually showed up.

Of those invited, about 30% were truly undecided, said Lydia K. Saad, managing editor of the Gallup Poll. About one-third leaned toward Dole, one-third toward Clinton and the remainder favored Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, who was excluded from the debate, said Saad.

During the debate, it often was the candidates themselves who seized on opportunities to address California, even when they were not specifically questioned about the state and its golden trove of 54 electoral votes--fully one-fifth of the number needed to win the White House.

“I don’t think we ought to be giving welfare payments to illegal immigrants,” Dole volunteered at one point when asked a more general question about reforming welfare. “It puts a heavy burden on states like California,” he added. “It costs California taxpayers $3 billion a year.”

Though Clinton did not note that the figure Dole used is cited by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as the cost of all public benefits for illegal immigrants--such as public education and medical care--he did quickly note that the law does not entitle illegal immigrants to welfare benefits.

For his part, Clinton mentioned California three times, San Diego three times, the earthquake-ravaged Santa Monica Freeway once and squeezed in a passing reference to the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles County when he was asked about religion and the presidency.

In a question about the trade deficit, Clinton talked about sending California rice to Japan as a success story of economic policy.

Not to be outdone, Dole--whose campaign has claimed it plans to focus on California in the coming days--made six separate references to the state.

He even managed to weave in his embarrassing plunge last month from a weakly constructed stage in Chico, as a vehicle to call for litigation reform. “Before I hit the ground,” Dole joked, “my cell phone rang and this trial lawyer said, ‘I think we’ve got a case here,’ ”

At least one highly pointed question came up--aimed at Dole from Delgado, a man who described himself as an ex-smoker of 30 years. Was Dole prepared to recant his statement that nicotine is not addictive? Delgado asked.

“They probably are addictive,” Dole allowed, adding that he didn’t think people should smoke.

Delgado, a computer systems scientist for the Navy, was pleased with the response. “He was man enough to admit he had made a mistake.” Still, he was among those giving an overall edge to the president: “Poise-wise, confidence-wise, Bill Clinton won the debate. . . . Dole was pressing too hard.”

But the Rev. Ron Kite, a Protestant minister from Escondido, was more impressed with Dole.

Kite, who asked Dole whether the president should serve as a role model for children, said, “President Clinton was poised and sophisticated, a master of the form. But Bob Dole came out fighting and was the much stronger man, especially on the character issue. I’m definitely for Dole now.”

In a decided contrast from the Washington reporters who typically grill the presidential candidates, the San Diego inquisitors mostly avoided negative questions.

Colleen O'Connor, an instructor of political science at Mesa College, asked the president how he would go about bringing disaffected Americans who don’t even vote back into the electoral process. O'Connor did not note that she is the sister of former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor and herself a onetime Democratic congressional candidate.

Colleen O'Connor served as her sister’s speech-writer during her six years as mayor and is the author of a book on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Jack Fleck, a retired Air Force pilot who asked Clinton about his plans to save Medicare and Social Security over the long run, said after the debate that he thought Dole “picked up a few points tonight.”

Fleck, wearing a blue blazer and white turtleneck, said that both candidates “sure gave me a lot more to think about and I have some questions to mull over.”

Fleck’s wife, Virginia, contacted at home after the debate, said she and her husband were “shocked and thrilled” at his selection. “We were just sitting here when we got the call from Gallup,” Fleck said.

She added: “Jack really is still undecided. I’m sure he won’t decide until the last moment. He’s like that.”

Yvette Dube, 55, a minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, acknowledged later that she is leaning toward Clinton but said she was picked because she was a “reformed Republican.” Dube wanted to know why Dole had referred to “special rights” when he had been asked about equal rights for gay people. But she posed the question to Clinton.

“I don’t understand why people use the term special rights when it’s really equal rights,” she declared during the debate.

Later, she said she was annoyed at what she viewed as Dole’s attacks on Clinton’s ethics. “It didn’t work for me,” she said.

Among the many professional politicians on hand, there was little doubt why Clinton and Dole sought to turn the discussion to California whenever they could--even when the Californians seemed to take a broader focus.

“You’re seeing an emerging Dole strategy of paying attention to California. [Clinton] knows California is now at risk,” contended state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, a Republican who has shadowed Dole throughout California during the GOP nominee’s frequent visits to the state. “He stretched any response so it could refer to California.”

Wilson maintained: “California is a forum that has issues that are real and have national implications.”

Times staff writers Tony Perry and Dave Lesher contributed to this story.


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