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GOP Can’t Afford to Write Off California

Times Staff Writer

In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush spent more than $20 million in California as part of a vigorous effort to carry the state in his first presidential bid. He lost to Vice President Al Gore by 1.3 million votes.

In 2004, seeking reelection, President Bush virtually ceded the state to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, spending minimal time and resources here. He lost California by 1.2 million votes.

Two approaches -- fight and flight -- produced the same result and showed just how inhospitable California has been to this president. His appearances in the state over the last two days have been limited to hand-picked audiences in the safe GOP harbors of Coronado in San Diego County and Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. Underscoring Bush’s poor image, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was notably absent from the president’s side, departing from the usual political protocol.

Still, party strategists and outside analysts say national Republicans would be foolhardy to write off California in presidential elections. The state is simply too big, too wealthy and too important to be continually ignored, they say.

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Moreover, they suggest, the state is more competitive than Bush’s travails indicate. The right Republican -- “a different kind of Republican,” as several observers phrased it -- could put California back in play as early as 2008, with consequences well beyond the state’s lengthy borders.

Bush has proved that Republicans can win the White House without California, but “it’s a tough go, even with an incumbent president,” said Rhodes Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Washington, D.C. “It seems to me if Republicans are really going to be a long-running majority party, California needs to be a part of that majority. Otherwise, they’re going to be a tenuous and not very long-running majority.”

Political fortunes can change quickly. California was a reliable Republican redoubt for more than a generation until then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won here in 1992. As president, he quickly turned the state into a Democratic stronghold.

Demographic changes were important to Clinton’s success, as Latino clout grew and conservatives left Southern California for the low-tax bastions of Arizona, Nevada and other Rocky Mountain states. But Clinton also lavished plenty of attention on California, visiting often and establishing a special White House liaison whose sole responsibility was the care and feeding of the Golden State.

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When Bush took office, “that warm spot” for California was “replaced by Texas,” Leon Panetta, a longtime congressman from the Monterey area, said a few days into the new administration.

The reality hit soon enough, during the 2001 energy crisis, when Bush took a hands-off approach and the state sweltered through a summer of rolling blackouts and soaring electricity bills. In focus groups conducted for then-Gov. Gray Davis’ reelection campaign, many voters assumed Bush’s actions were payback for losing the state in 2000.

“California is like any other state,” Panetta, White House chief of staff under Clinton, said Monday, expanding on his earlier comments. “If it feels like an administration is paying attention to its problems, then it will be friendly to that administration.”

White House officials and Bush allies say the president has never spurned California.

Introducing Bush on Monday in Rancho Cucamonga, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) referred to the president’s quick reaction to Hurricane Katrina, and said Bush has likewise been responsive to California catastrophes, such as mudslides and wildfires.

“He has always been there to support the needs of Californians,” Dreier said.

But clearly the perception exists among many voters that the state is low on Bush’s list of priorities. That poses a double challenge for Republicans looking ahead to 2008 -- reassuring Californians that the party cares about them and finding a candidate who can win over social conservatives while staying in sync with the state’s live-and-let-live philosophy.

Party strategists offer up names of several Republicans who might be strong California prospects: former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and, especially, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Each has broken at some point with Republican orthodoxy on abortion, gay rights, campaign finance or other issues, suggesting a maverick streak that could appeal to libertarian California voters.

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But those very qualities also make it less likely that any of the three could survive party primaries in Iowa or South Carolina, for instance, where balloting is dominated by religious conservatives.

“That’s a hurdle you need to clear to be the nominee, but in a sense that can make a candidate less electable in a state like California,” said Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland expert on the presidential nominating process.

For now, Bush remains the face of the Republican Party and, as his poll numbers continue to sag, he makes an increasingly welcome target for Democrats -- and a not entirely welcome presence for the state’s Republican governor.

Schwarzenegger -- struggling to pass a handful of measures in the special election he called for Nov. 8 -- is burdened with his own plunge in approval ratings. A recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 34% of Californians approving of his job performance, compared with 38% giving approval to Bush’s.

To achieve his goals in the special election, Schwarzenegger needs the votes of Democrats and independents who make up the majority of the state’s voters. He can ill afford to antagonize them by a close association with Bush, particularly since Democrats probably will try to tie him in voters’ minds to the president.

“I think a major problem that Arnold faces this fall is that this special election is a great chance for Californians to vote against Bush,” said Tony Quinn, a Sacramento analyst and co-editor of the Target Book, a nonpartisan guide to state politics. “The best way to turn out [Democratic voters] is to energize them by attacking Bush. It’s going to be easy for the Democrats to say, ‘Send Bush a message. Vote against Arnold.’ ”

Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for the governor, dismissed that analysis. “I think people tend to over-think these dynamics,” he said. “Just like the recall election, this November’s special [election] won’t have anything to do with national politics. Voters will act upon what’s best for California’s future.”

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Times staff writer Peter Wallsten in Coronado contributed to this report.


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