LOS ANGELES - For the 14th time in about a year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was back in California the other day, despite polls showing him trailing Vice President Al Gore here by a wide margin. His visit raised a familiar question among fellow Republicans and Democrats alike.
Is he serious about trying to win California and its bounty of 54 electoral votes? Or is he simply making a political feint that he hopes will force Gore to spend millions in campaign resources here that he could put to better use elsewhere?
It is a question inspired by the behavior of the two previous GOP presidential nominees who lost in the Golden State, Bob Dole in 1996 and the senior George Bush in 1992. Each flirted with California after Labor Day despite unfavorable polls, but neither really made the kind of commitment it would have taken to win the state.
Governor Bush, sensitive to the disappointment of the Republican faithful who climbed out on a limb for his father eight years ago and for Dole four years later, told a large crowd in "Little Saigon" south of here: "I'm coming a lot for a reason. I want the good people of this important state to know I intend to win in California."
Gerald Parsky, the state Republican chairman heading the Bush campaign, says $500,000 was spent in the past week on Bush television ads, and that amount is being bumped up to $1 million.
"I don't know how you measure commitment," he says. "There couldn't be any stronger signals by the candidate. I don't know whether Vice President Gore is taking California for granted. If he is, that's fine. We'll just have to see on Election Day."
The Democrats, pointing to recent polls and what they call cautiously placed television buys by the Bush campaign, say they aren't convinced that Bush is committed to an all-out effort here.
They note a survey by Paul Maslin, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' pollster, after Labor Day showing Gore well ahead: 49 percent to 36 percent for Bush, 5 percent for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and 1 percent for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan. The poll gave Gore the same margin as in the nonpartisan Field Poll right after the Democratic National Convention here: Gore 50 percent, Bush 37.
Art Torres, the state Democratic chairman, dismisses Bush's continued visits as the same sort of gambit his father and Dole tried. They are intended, he says, "to continue the faM-gade that he has a stake here." The GOP ticket needs a strong candidate at the top in California because at least four U.S. House seats are up for grabs, and their loss could cost the Republicans control of the House.
If Bush's repeated presence is "a little tease to make us spend money" in California, Torres says, it's a wasted effort. "We're going to spend it anyway," he says, because the Democrats, who need a net gain of six seats to regain the House, are just as committed as the Republicans to winning the close California contests.
Nevertheless, says state Sen. Jim Brulte, regarded as the state Republican Party's most astute politician, the Democrats "are incredibly overconfident. They're setting themselves up for a fall."
He says the state GOP has put about $3.5 million into the campaign and has a goal of as much as $15 million, with $3.5 million already in the bank. It is a remarkable recovery for a state party that was on the ropes in 1998 after Davis reclaimed the governorship for the Democrats for the first time in 16 years.
California in the television era has been widely considered to be a state won or lost on the airwaves, too huge and populated to be contested at the grass-roots level. But Parsky has worked diligently on the ground, putting field organizations for Bush in every one of the state's 52 congressional districts.
In March's open primary, he notes, Bush and Sen. John McCain together garnered 900,000 more votes than Democrats Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley. The greater interest in the Republican contest, however, probably was a large factor in that outcome.
Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican consultant who worked briefly for McCain, says it makes sense for Bush to spend a lot of time in California. Noting the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater's observation that Republicans "can win without California," Schnur says, "The last two [the senior Bush and Dole] agreed, so they tried" - and lost.
With both those candidates running poorly and without a strong organizational effort, he says, the California party wound up in 1992 and 1996 with "a Gilligan's Island strategy - sitting back and writing SOS in the sand."
But it's not enough for Bush just to show the body and attack Gore's credibility, Schnur says. In opposing Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, he says, his party fell into "the character trap" instead of talking about issues that resonate in the state: this year, education and fears about Social Security and health care.
Noting that Bush questioned McCain's credibility in the New Hampshire primary and lost, Schnur says, "he had to adjust and did. The question is whether he can now," by talking issues of concern to California's swing voters.
Torres says, however, that Bush's outlook is hopeless in the state for precisely the reason that he is wrong for Californians on the key issues that will motivate them Nov. 7: abortion rights, gun control, education and the environment. The Republicans, he says, "can't make their candidate connect with voters" on those issues, whereas Gore does. "And it has nothing to do with charisma," he says. Davis, the bland governor who jokes that he is Gore's 'charisma coach,' proved that, he says.
Ken Khachigian, a longtime Republican operative here who also backed McCain, says Bush "is a better fit than Dole" because he is younger and has had success with Latino voters in Texas.
But Torres says former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's restrictive policies toward immigrants have turned ethnic voters of all kinds against the GOP, countering whatever appeal the governor might otherwise have to them.
Sal Russo, another longtime Republican consultant, suggests that Bush's focus on California was conceived when he was well ahead in the polls.
"When he had a double-digit lead, he could afford to push Gore in Democratic-leaning states," Russo says, "but the scenario hasn't worked out that way." While Bush consolidated his GOP base constituents early, he says, "there's a difference between having them and energizing them," and with Bush "off message" lately the latter hasn't happened.
Gale Kaufman, a veteran Sacramento Democratic campaign manager, says Bush's television buys have been too scattered to make a difference. "If they're seeing what we're seeing," she says of targeted polling in key congressional districts, "they should pull out and go where they can get electoral votes." But the California prize of 54, apparently, is hard to walk away from.