Cat-and-mouse in California


LOS ANGELES -- Although President Clinton continues to lead challenger Bob Dole by a mile in California -- 55 percent to 33 in the Field Poll -- the Dole campaign insists that its man will not concede the state to him as George Bush did four years ago.

Ken Khachigian, the former Ronald Reagan aide who is the Dole campaign's chief in-state adviser, says "a full state and field organization is being put in place with a fully funded get-out-the-vote plan" to win California's 54 electoral votes, the largest single bloc at stake.

"If anybody's hoping we're not going to be here [to the end]," Mr. Khachigian says, "he will be disappointed. This will not be the free ride it was in 1992."

That last comment suggests, although Mr. Khachigian denies it, that the prime objective of a continued Dole campaign presence in California is to force the Clinton campaign to spend time and resources heavily in the state and thus divert them from other states that may be more competitive.

A political cat-and-mouse game is going on. Bill Carrick, the former campaign manager for Sen. Dianne Feinstein who is the senior in-state adviser to the Clinton campaign, says the Dole forces are scattering their purchases of air time in various media markets "to look like they're running, but doing it on the cheap."

The Clinton campaign's response, he says, is "whatever they do, we do. Everybody's playing a little game of chicken about [buying] television." Matching what Senator Dole does is enough, Mr. Carrick says, because Mr. Clinton has paid unusual attention to California. His visit last week was his 27th as president. A strengthened state economy with 650,000 new jobs created during Mr. Clinton's term also bolsters the president here.

Mr. Khachigian argues that the president's repeated return to California means he knows Senator Dole is not going to abandon the state and he can lose here if he doesn't keep campaigning. "This is one state, if we win California, you can put a fork in Clinton," he says.

In fact, however, the president continues to run comfortably ahead in most of the other states with large electoral votes. It may indeed be Senator Dole who needs California to cling to any long-shot hope for victory.

Two disappointments

Since the end of May, he has spent 20 days in 20 different California cities, or 20 percent of his time, according to Mr. Khachigian. It had been expected that two issues pushed by Gov. Pete Wilson -- a proposed ban on affirmative action, the subject of a statewide ballot initiative, and an end to aid to illegal immigrants -- would play strongly for Senator Dole. But they haven't seemed to do much for him so far.

Instead, here as elsewhere, the Republican nominee has pounded on his proposal for a 15 percent tax cut, arguing that Californians are not getting their rightful share of the fruits of an improved economy. That pitch hasn't seemed to help him much either.

Mr. Dole also may be hanging in here because leading state Republicans fear that throwing in the sponge in the presidential race could have severe ramifications in congressional races, with GOP control of the House now less certain. "Republicans are scared to death here," Mr. Carrick says. "If he pulls out, they're going to get hurt by the [lower] turnout." He suggests that Governor Wilson is "saying California is competitive to keep him here."

Celia Fisher, who is running the Democrats' coordinated campaign in the state, says she is becoming convinced that Mr. Dole will stay in California to the end despite the odds against him because the state's 54 electoral votes are simply too big a prize to hand over without a fight. Reaching the 270 needed to be elected would be a formidable task "once they gave up 20 percent" in a single state, she says, "so why would they back TTC out here?" Mr. Dole's chances don't look much better in most of the other battleground states.

At the same time, Ms. Fisher says, "ghosts of elections past" keep the Clinton campaign working hard in California. Asked what motivates her, with such a large Clinton lead, she smiles and says simply: "Fear of losing."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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