Bush Is Still Badly Out of Step With California


President Bush has been digging himself into a hole in California for two years, and one State of the Union address isn't going to do much to get him out. No matter how strongly delivered or tough on Saddam Hussein.

Bush lost to Al Gore in California by 12 points in 2000, despite spending $20 million. And he has done little since then to win over moderate swing voters who, in examining candidates, often apply a litmus test involving their positions on abortion, guns and the environment.

These issues, of course, will not decide the 2004 presidential election, even in California. Most likely, it will turn on the economy and the war.

The West Coast now suffers the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Also, many voters will be judging Bush by their 401(k)s; the Dow is down roughly 23% on his watch.

And "in November 2004 is he going to be a war hero or a goat?" asks Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who publishes the California Target Book, which monitors political races.

One role of litmus-test issues is to remind voters why they never really liked the guy in the first place. Or did like him. When a president -- or any major officeholder -- is sliding in public esteem, as Bush has been, voters are less inclined to be forgiving on the litmus issues.

On abortion, guns and the environment, Bush is way off on the wrong track from Californians. This can undermine whatever else he might do as president.

Soon after entering the Oval Office, for example, Bush cut off U.S. funds to any international group that counseled women about abortion as an option.

"He has nominated 94 right-wing ideologues" as federal judges, contends Helen Grieco, head of the California National Organization for Women. She says Bush's goal is to get anti-abortion judges into the pipeline for Supreme Court vacancies.

On guns, the Bush Justice Department declared last year that the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to own firearms. This reversed six decades of federal policy and raised questions about the legality of current gun controls.

But where Bush is most noticeably moving in a different direction from California is on the environment.

And in this case, it's another sign for many that he sides with corporate interests and wealth.

A poll last June by the Public Policy Institute of California found that although 65% of Californians approved of the way Bush was handling his job, only 39% approved of his environmental actions. Also, 64% said stricter environmental laws "are worth the cost" to the economy.

Says Jay Watson, state director of the Wilderness Society: "Every step of the way, this administration has shown it is thoroughly out of touch with California."

"It's in order to feed their right-wing base that believes all environmental rules are just about anti-property rights," says Mary Nichols, secretary of the state Resources Agency and a former federal environmental official in the Clinton administration. "So they're serving them up red meat. Maybe red fish."

Some examples:

* The U.S. Forest Service recently proposed cutting enough timber in the Giant Sequoia National Monument to fill 3,000 logging trucks a year. The rationale is fire prevention.

* The Bush administration's diversion of too much water to Klamath River Basin farmers apparently killed 30,000 salmon downstream, enraging Indian tribes and commercial fishermen. Nichols says the state had just spent $19 million reviving that salmon run.

* The administration has joined auto makers in suing to block California's requirement for zero-emission electric cars.

* Bush has tried to ease the way for more oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. So far, the state has beaten him in court.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton rejected Gov. Gray Davis' request that the feds buy back the offshore drilling rights, as they did in Florida when the president's brother was running for reelection as governor. "Florida opposes coastal drilling," Norton wrote, adding unbelievably: "California does not."

"Let's be honest," says Hoffenblum, "Bush has shown in the last couple of years that he's not running an administration to appeal to the California electorate. Al Gore ran that kind of campaign and lost West Virginia and Tennessee. California's not even on their radar."

A Bush insider, asking not to be identified, says it hasn't been decided whether the president will contest California next year. But the strategist acknowledges that these litmus issues hurt him and says some positions may have to be juggled.

If Bush wants to climb out of his California hole, as they say, the first thing he must do is stop digging.

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