RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- On the morning after Bob Dole's final debate with President Clinton, he was in a feisty mood. "We're gonna get tough in this campaign," he told an enthusiastic audience here. "You haven't seen anything yet. Last night was a warm-up."
But reports were floating around that his continuing campaign in California, where Mr. Clinton is well ahead in the polls, aimed mainly at saving Republican congressional seats. Senator Dole denied that. "Those guys don't need saving," he insisted. "We're out to win the election. That's why we're in California."
Last week the Mervin Field poll indicated that Mr. Dole had narrowed the president's lead to 10 points in California. Until then, the political wise guys were saying either that Mr. Dole was merely giving the appearance of contesting California to persuade the Clinton campaign to expend major resources here, or that he was trying to salvage as many as seven imperiled Republican House seats.
Former Reagan speech writer Ken Khachigian, one of the candidate's chief California advisers, has insisted all along that the Republican nominee would stick it out in the uphill quest for the state's 54 electoral votes, the nation's largest prize. After the Riverside speech, he reported on the Dole press plane that a plan to win the state was in place, with sufficient budget to do so.
If the Field poll was the inspiration for Mr. Dole's continued presence in the state, however, its author apparently discounts it. He told the Sacramento Press Club that the narrowing of the president's lead was mainly the subsidence of his convention "bounce." Mr. Field said that there was "no momentum" for Senator Dole because voters know all they want to know about the candidates, and most say they have already made up their minds how to vote.
Mr. Khachigian disagrees. "Republicans always close faster in California," he says, meaning they "come home" to their party at the end of a campaign. He notes that former Gov. George Deukmejian was 14 points behind with four weeks to go in one of his campaigns and won.
In any event, with polls elsewhere indicating that Mr. Dole is well behind in most of the other so-called battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he might as well roll the dice and go for the biggest electoral prize of all in California .
There's money left
Mr. Khachigian and other senior Dole staffers, Charles Black and Scott Reed, all told reporters that the decision to compete to the end in California did not mean the senator was abandoning the other battleground states. Mr. Black said his campaign should be able to outspend the Clinton effort in California because Mr. Dole has nearly $25 million left of the taxpayer funds to which he is entitled, compared with only $17 million to $18 million still in the Clinton coffers.
Mr. Reed said that the Dole campaign was going after California because if "we take California away from Clinton, he cannot win." But the same likely is true for Senator Dole. States in the South, the Great Plains and West that should be his base right now don't add up to the 270 electoral votes he needs without California.
It is significant that Mr. Dole at this late stage in the campaign is still stumping in traditionally Republican areas and states to shore up his party base, while Mr. Clinton is regularly visiting traditional GOP states to nibble away at that base, confident of strong support in his own.
The hope of the Dole campaign in California is that a mix of issues -- his proposed 15 percent tax cut, crime, cutting off illegal immigration and ending affirmative action in public education, employment and contracting, as well as his escalating attacks on the president as unethical and untrustworthy -- will work the magic he needs.
But the economy is strong again in California, and Mr. Clinton's popularity has remained high here throughout his presidency. Senator Dole will indeed have to go all out in the state to win it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/21/96