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In political slump, Calif. GOP looks to Bush


LOS ANGELES -- Political consultants by nature are an optimistic sort, especially when they're talking to reporters about the fortunes of their particular party. Sal Russo, the longtime Republican guru in California, is no exception.

When asked about the state of the GOP now that a Democrat, Gray Davis, occupies the governorship for the first time in 16 years, both U.S. senators are Democratic and the congressional delegation and both houses of the state legislature have Democratic majorities, he finds a pony in the pile of manure -- as Ronald Reagan used to say.

Mr. Russo points to a recent poll in California showing Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas running ahead of the Democratic front-runner for the 2000 nomination, Vice President Al Gore. "We're defined by our leaders," he says, "and our presidential nominee will lift all boats. Being a Republican doesn't mean anything anymore, but being Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush does."

Translation: Since the Republicans have no strong internal leadership in the state anymore, they are going to have to look for a transfusion of voter appeal from outside, in the form of a popular presidential nominee. But Mr. Bush is an unknown quantity in California as he is around the country, as are the other GOP hopefuls for 2000.

This thinking is a slender reed indeed on which to construct Republican optimism in what is the closest thing to a "must-win" state in the next presidential sweepstakes. California's 54 electoral votes are the largest single prize, alone constituting 20 percent of what's needed for election, and the state has gone Democratic in the past two presidential elections, with Vice President Al Gore on the ticket.

Although former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is out after eight controversial years in office, his party is still burdened by the bad taste he has left with many voters. Latinos and Asians, increasingly critical in the electorate, particularly have been antagonized by Mr. Wilson's attacks on affirmative action and social services for illegal immigrants.

The highest-ranking GOP statewide officeholders are a pair of unknowns, secretary of state Bill Jones and state insurance commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. And the chances of beating Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000 are so slim that Republican leaders openly admit they will need a "suicide candidate" to go against her.

Furthermore, the state party is facing an internal challenge next weekend at its annual convention when a moderate, former assemblyman Brooks Firestone, will seek the vice chairmanship as a way to break into a party leadership that he blames in part for the defeat of conservative gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren by Mr. Davis last November.

And then there is the matter of the fallout of the Clinton impeachment trial on the Republican congressional delegation, now outnumbered 23-29 by the Democrats. As many as eight GOP House seats, most of them won by less than 10 percent in 1998, are being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the liberal People for the American Way.

One of the House managers who shouldered the prosecution case in the Senate trial, Rep. James E. Rogan, representing the Pasadena-Burbank-Glendale suburbs of Los Angeles, is in the bulls-eye of both groups.

He won a second term by only 3 percentage points in November in a once-secure Republican district that is rapidly becoming Democratic as a result of foreign-born immigration; it voted for Mr. Clinton twice. Getting back to his theme that nowadays parties are defined by their leaders, Mr. Russo says the GOP lost ground in November because "we were seen as the party of Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr. When we didn't have anybody to identify with, we did poorly."

The implication is that with Mr. Gingrich gone and Mr. Starr presumably on the back burner with Mr. Clinton acquitted, they won't be the GOP poster boys in 2000.

But that places a very heavy burden on Mr. Bush or whichever other Republican presidential hopeful heads the ticket -- none of them exactly lighting up the sky right now. The next presidential election is more than 20 months off, and a savior to lift the California GOP out of its doldrums may still emerge, or Democratic fortunes slide. Right now, though, the critical Golden State does not look to be promising ground for Republican mining.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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