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Senator to Visit California in Bid to Lock Down State

Times Staff Writers

John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is taking two days away from the campaign’s most hotly contested battleground states to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in East Los Angeles today and talk education in Colton on Thursday.

President Bush’s supporters say he too will keep campaigning to win California despite polls suggesting the Democratic-leaning state is beyond his reach.

So what’s going on? Call it the delicate dance of the donors with a little life insurance thrown in for good measure.

The Bush team’s insistence that he can win California could reassure campaign donors that the president views the state as more than just a cash machine.

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For the Massachusetts senator, who is making a rare foray into California for a purpose other than raising money, his main goal is to lock down the state early so he can focus later on critical swing states.

It’s a political pas de deux that California voters should be accustomed to because it has happened in every election cycle since Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992. Although there have been slight variations in subsequent years, the basic steps are the same for Democrats and Republicans:

“Spend only enough to get the money you need, and to help the state officials you need to make feel good, but not enough to be a zero-sum game with Ohio and the other battleground states,” said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

“California does need care and feeding,” Kaplan said, but not the campaign’s most precious resources: money and the candidate’s time.

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The California trip -- Kerry’s 16th since January 2003, for a total of 33 days in the Golden State -- is mainly an effort to solidify his base here, said one Democratic strategist. It could protect Kerry against any effort by the well-funded Bush campaign this summer to damage him by dumping millions of dollars into advertising in California. That could force the Democrat to defend -- at great cost -- what should be safe ground. State Controller Steve Westly, co-chair of Kerry’s California campaign, said Kerry was scheduled to return to the state in late June, but “whether he’s here that much for the last 90 or 100 days [of the campaign] we’ll just have to see.”

Kerry spokesman David Wade insisted, “We will be in California often.”

Kerry, he said, “will continue to have an active presence in the state, building on his overwhelming victory in the primary.”

For Kerry, tending to California, the most expensive state for running a campaign, includes wooing Latinos, a constituency being courted aggressively by Bush.

Today, Kerry will appear in El Sereno with Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Rep. Hilda L. Solis of El Monte and other Latinos at an event to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at Wilson High School, where nine of 10 students are Latinos.

The campaign is hoping that news coverage of the event could send a signal to Latinos nationwide that he is not taking them for granted.

Some Kerry supporters have raised doubts over the last week about his attentiveness to the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing minority group.

At a Kerry campaign stop Tuesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson dismissed those concerns, saying Kerry would soon run Spanish-language ads and hire top Latino advisors, among other moves.

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“The Democratic Party is not taking the Latino vote for granted,” said Richardson, who is Latino.

Kerry is to give a Spanish-language interview today with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos about the U.S. economy, the war in Iraq, immigration, the trade embargo with Cuba and the dropout rate of Latino students. The interview is to be televised nationally.

As for Kerry’s campaign stops, many Democratic donors would rather not see their candidate spend much time in California, said Ari Swiller, a strategist who worked on Kerry’s Los Angeles fundraiser in late March. Nine out of 10 voters and donors in the state “would pay not to see him [if they could] get articles about how great Ohio’s going,” Swiller said.

For the donors Swiller works with, “seeing him and being cared for by him is secondary by a lot. Winning is the primary goal for everybody.”

GOP strategist Ken Khachigian said the combined strength of Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock last year in California’s gubernatorial recall race should serve as a reminder that California “is not just a reflexively liberal state.”

Like Kerry, Bush has an interest in being seen as competing hard to win California despite polls suggesting he has scant hopes of carrying the state. He has visited the state 11 times since becoming president for a total of 17 days, most recently taking a fundraising swing here in early March.

GOP sources say he will be back in the state before the November election.

“President Bush may be the first Republican candidate in many election cycles to be in a position to win California coming down the home stretch in the fall,” said campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. “We are organized in California, and we’ll watch how California develops over the course of the next several months.”

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Many Republicans still recall the debacle of 1992, when President George H. W. Bush’s withdrawal from California helped sink the party’s candidates for U.S. Senate and other state and federal offices.

“Donors, volunteers -- it had a psychologically devastating effect on the entire Republican infrastructure,” said Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who was communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000.

Schnur said it was important for both Kerry and Bush to “carry the flag” in base states of both parties. “It’s a sign of weakness to concede large parts of the country publicly, even if it makes sense tactically,” he said.

“If you ask John Kerry how he’s going to do in the South or the Great Plains, he’ll tell you he’s ‘very confident.’ George Bush will give you the same answer about California.”

Times staff writers Christiana Sciaudone and Matea Gold contributed to this report.


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