• U.S.

THE BATTLEGROUND STATE

9 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Like the Shah of Iran in his final days, Bob Dole’s campaign doesn’t have many places to set down. In almost every big state but Texas, there’s an unwelcoming crowd on the ground. Michigan and Illinois? Not good. Likewise Ohio. Forget New York. Even Florida is tilting the wrong way. That suggests an explanation for the official version of the Republican endgame, the one Dole’s campaign embarked on last week. It calls for a last-ditch effort to win California and its 54 electoral votes, even if that means neglecting smaller but more promising potential swing states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. As justification, Dole’s team points to one important poll, the San Francisco-based Mervin Field survey. Early last week it showed Dole just 10 points behind Clinton. That’s a manageable gap, the argument goes. Close it, add a few big Midwestern states, and maybe, if turnout is good and God is a Republican, there’s a base for a narrow victory. “We take California away from Clinton, he can’t win,” insists Dole campaign manager Scott Reed.

So there was Dole last week, running more or less for Governor of California. Energetic, pugnacious, he hit the ground in Riverside and Glendale to cheer on the state ballot initiative that would ban affirmative action. With California handling about half the nation’s illegal aliens, he slammed Clinton for making changes in the new immigration law to bar states from denying medical assistance to illegals with aids. Dole promised more border guards along the highway that runs south from San Diego into Tijuana. If he didn’t really feel inspired, he wasn’t half bad at pretending.

The crowds turning out for Dole were sparse. But for comfort he has in-house poll numbers that show him continuing to gain ground in California. So is this one last grab for the gold ring, as his campaign insists? Or is it a soberly calculated admission of defeat–and a final effort on behalf of the G.O.P. by a man who has devoted his life to his party? In a panic over the prospect of losing the Republican Congress, Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been pushing Dole toward California, where 52 House seats are up for grabs. Bearing down hard there means abandoning swing states elsewhere, so it could be damaging to whatever remains of his hopes for the presidency. But a big Dole effort could help G.O.P. congressional candidates throughout the state, the biggest of the battlegrounds in the G.O.P. fight to hold the House.

In terms of congressional arithmetic, that route makes sense. Democrats need 20 more seats to take back the House. In California about half a dozen G.O.P. seats are vulnerable this year, among the most toss-up races in any state. If a halfhearted Dole effort there keeps Republican turnout low on Election Day, they could easily go Democratic. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the lowest turnout in modern history,” says G.O.P. pollster Frank Luntz. “That’s where personal appearances [by Dole] can make a difference.” Local Republicans haven’t forgotten the 1992 presidential campaign, when George Bush gave up on their state early, helping Democrats take both California Senate seats and 30 of its House seats.

In terms of presidential arithmetic, however, the California strategy has its problems. To carry a state that size takes a lot of heavy lifting. Closing a 10-point gap in the polls there means changing the minds of more than half a million voters, an enormous haul between now and Nov. 5. And changing those minds costs plenty in high-priced media markets Los Angeles. Also, Dole will have to make his message heard over the noise of other campaign spots in a year when, in addition to the clang of local congressional races, an estimated $100 million is being poured into advertising for and against 15 statewide ballot initiatives. The whole scheme is “a sign of political lunacy,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Then again, if Dole loses the big prize but helps his party keep the House, a deeply discouraged G.O.P. will be thankful for what it can get. Republicans, who have been edgy in private for weeks, are getting edgy in public. Last week William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, declared the presidential race a lost cause and urged congressional candidates to sell themselves to voters as a check on Clinton’s liberal impulses in his inevitable second term. Columnist Morton Kondracke reported that the candidates were getting ready to do just that. During postdebate analysis on abc-tv, George Will recommended that the party do more than just resign itself to Dole’s defeat. “It has to advertise his defeat,” he said. “It has to try and save itself in Congress by going to the country, saying, ‘You’re going to have a Democratic President. Do you want him unrestrained by a countervailing force on Congress?'”

Dole’s advisers insist that their California strategy is not a concession to defeat but a smartly calculated best shot at a come-from-behind win. If nothing else, they say, it will keep alive national media attention to Dole, something that a big push in less glittery Indiana wouldn’t do. And that spotlight, Dole’s advisers hope, could convince voters generally that Dole is not yesterday’s news. “It energizes your base in other places when you see Bob Dole fighting for California,” says Steve Merksamer, who was statewide head of the Bush campaign in 1988.

Ask Dole advisers how many appearances their man will actually be making in California, and they hedge. That has led to suspicions that even this new strategy is partly just spin, intended to sustain the fading notion that his campaign has somewhere to go. But the Dole campaign, which claims to have a little less than $20 million in its national treasure chest, is promising to spend a third of it on California television buys. Dole ads are disappearing in some other states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Maybe the money really is heading west.

The California strategy grew out of a series of top-level conversations that began last month. Along with Barbour and Gingrich, the chief backers of the plan have been Dole’s campaign Californians: running mate Kemp and consultants John Sears and Ken Kachigian, plus Merksamer. On Oct. 12, the candidate finally signed on during a long meeting at his Washington headquarters. By the time of his debate with Clinton the following Wednesday night, Dole was salting his remarks with references to California’s hot-button issues: affirmative action, illegal immigration and defense-spending cuts.

The national campaign headquarters of both parties have been pouring money and effort into some of the state’s close congressional races, like the San Francisco-area battle between Republican incumbent Frank Riggs, 46, a former sheriff’s deputy, and Democrat Michela Alioto, 28, a granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. In recent years the district has been a political toggle switch, going Republican in 1990 with Riggs, who was voted out in ’92 and voted back in ’94.

Alioto is accusing Riggs, who largely supported the Contract with America, of guilt by association with Gingrich on Medicare, education, assault weapons and the environment. Riggs is slamming her as a liberal carpetbagger sent by the unions and the White House. One very controversial TV spot fielded by the Riggs campaign linked Alioto, an opponent of the death penalty, with Richard Allen Davis, the murderer of Polly Klaas and probably the most hated man in California.

This is a race where big guns are flying in for both sides. The AFL-CIO has been bombarding the district with ads attacking Riggs as a Friend of Newt, who has about the same local approval ratings as Dracula. Two weeks ago, the National Republican Congressional Committee finally struck back with ads saying the unions were trying to buy the election.

On Thursday, Elizabeth Dole turned up at a Riggs campaign rally. She may or may not be an asset. Her husband stands to get about 30% of the vote in Riggs’ district generally. But Riggs made sure he was onstage with Mrs. Dole at her appearance in Eureka because it’s in Humboldt County, part of the more conservative northern part of his district. House majority leader Dick Armey has also passed through. Genial multimillionaire Steve Forbes is next.

Alioto, who worked for Al Gore in the White House before moving back to California to run for Congress, has held events in the past several weeks with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Gloria Steinem and George Stephanopoulos, the President’s senior adviser. For now, polls show Riggs and Alioto about even. Liz Wilner of the Cook Political Report says, “Presidential turnout could make all the difference in the world.”

Democrats may have little fear of a Dole upset win, but they are worried that Republicans in tight House races will finally start campaigning on the line that they should be sent to Washington as a check on Clinton in his second term. Voters were not exactly wild about the first two years of the Clinton Administration, when he got a Democratic Congress and they got a very big health-care proposal but not the tax cut or welfare reform he had promised. Now pollsters for both parties are finding a significant quirk when people are asked, all other things being equal, if they would rather be represented by a Democrat or a Republican in Congress. Right now Democrats are favored by several points over Republicans. But pollsters have also asked voters which party they expect to support in House races if Clinton is ensured a second term. Then the advantage shifts to the G.O.P.

Should G.O.P. candidates write off Dole to save the House? It’s a tactic that could work all too well. If they convince enough Republican voters that Dole is a lost cause, these voters may stay home on Election Day. So it’s a dangerous game. But for a party that faces a very bleak November, what other kind of game is left?

–Reported by James Carney/Eureka, Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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