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Energy summit in land of blackouts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES - President Bush visited 29 other states before finally making it to California. Considering the reception he got yesterday, he might wish he could have avoided the land of rolling blackouts even longer.

While protesters chanted outside, Bush and his California nemesis, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, held a largely unproductive summit meeting - at least from the governor's point of view - on the electric power shortage facing the nation's most populous state.

Bush is offering California's 34 million residents a series of measures designed to demonstrate his concern over their energy problems and to help provide relief in the months and years ahead.

But Bush again refused to budge on the governor's main demand: that Washington agree to temporarily cap electric power prices in the state. That, Bush said, would only make the problem worse, resulting in "more serious shortages" and "even higher prices."

After the private discussion, the governor voiced strong disappointment over their "fundamental disagreement" on price caps, which he termed "the big enchilada, the thing that matters above all else."

Davis then announced that California would sue the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in hopes of getting court-ordered price relief.

Without a government-imposed limit on wholesale power prices, the governor warned, the rising cost of electricity may lead to more than widespread blackouts in the state this summer.

It could also cripple California's economy, which represents roughly one-eighth of the national economy, to the point that it tips the country into recession.

Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, in a briefing for reporters, refused to answer directly when asked how Bush responded to that warning and whether the president shares the governor's worry that the troubles here will spill over into the rest of the country.

Bush understands "the human cost of this," Rove responded. "We want to keep the California economy humming."

The two sides offered somewhat differing assessments of the 35-minute meeting, as is often the case when officials describe talks between hostile nations.

Rove emphasized that the session went beyond its scheduled length and called it "very friendly and very constructive and positive."

Davis, who has been hammering the administration relentlessly for weeks on the energy issue, described it as a "cordial, informational and business-like" exchange of views.

"We have an agreement to disagree, but it is a big disagreement," the Democrat said, while thanking Bush for taking the time to visit the state and for offering to send one of his FERC appointees here to hear firsthand the governor's complaints about price gouging by energy suppliers.

Earlier, in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Bush went out of his way to praise "your good governor," who was seated nearby on the dais.

But in what appeared to be a jab at Davis' repeated criticism of the administration's energy policy, Bush said that "for too long - and too often - too many have wasted energy pointing fingers and laying blame.

Energy is a problem that requires action - not politics, not excuses," he said to applause.

Bush adviser Rove noted that the well-heeled lunchtime crowd, which paid $75 a head to hear Bush speak, had applauded his opposition to price caps. However, two hecklers, who rattled the president by shouting slogans in favor of limiting electric power costs, clearly disagreed.

So, too, did several hundred demonstrators who stood outside the Century Plaza Hotel, protesting the administration and its energy policy.

They toted signs criticizing Bush and his "Texas energy mafia" and chanted, "Not our president, oilman's president."

Bush began his day with a visit to Camp Pendleton, the Marine base south of Los Angeles, to highlight his conservation order to federal installations in the state.

They have been told to cut energy use by 10 percent during peak periods this summer, such as by turning down air conditioning.

Bush also announced that the administration would free up $150 million in emergency aid to help low-income Californians pay their bills.

Though gasoline prices here are well above $2.00 a gallon at some stations, it is the price of electricity that is squeezing residents and threatening the solvency of the state government.

For months, the Bush administration and the governor have been feuding publicly over the issue.

Privately, politicians here say that until Bush and Davis quit talking past each other on the energy issue, there can be little hope of significant federal-state cooperation on the problem.

Without price caps, Davis warns, the situation here will only worsen over the summer, as temperatures rise and the demand for power skyrockets.

Among those supporting price controls are four Republican members of the state's congressional delegation, who have said that the state faces a crisis that forces them to put aside their free-market principles.

The Bush administration contends that price caps would only discourage companies from building the new generating plants that are needed to end the energy squeeze.

Davis, who is seeking re-election next year, still has hopes of challenging Bush for the presidency in 2004. But public anger over the electricity crisis has turned his re-election from a foregone conclusion into an uncertainty.

Meantime, a potential new threat to Davis is Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who introduced the president at the luncheon.

The 71-year-old mayor, whose term ends next month, is considering a race for governor at the urging of Republicans in California and Washington. A test matchup in a recent statewide poll showed him running even with Davis.

Putting a Republican back in the governor's office is a top priority for Bush strategists here, as they look for ways to rebound in a state where Bush lost the state to Al Gore by 12 percentage points last fall. The president's poll numbers have been falling - along with the governor's - as the public has parceled out blame for the energy situation.

Because this is the nation's most populous state, the president's falling popularity in California is dragging down his approval rating nationwide, which in some surveys is at its lowest point since he took office.

Yesterday's private meeting with Davis was the main event in a two-day presidential swing aimed at reassuring Californians that Bush isn't ignoring them.

Today, he will reach out to the state's environmentally conscious electorate with a tour of Sequoia National Park in the central part of the state. Aides said that stop was designed to highlight the administration's commitment to spend millions to fix up the nation's parks.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field poll in San Francisco, said the best approach for Bush in this state might be "to take a page from Bill Clinton's playbook and tell Californians he feels their pain, because there is a lot of pain out there."

Bush, who rarely mentions his predecessor, defended his decision to oppose price caps for electric power by noting that the Clinton administration had taken the same position.

And Rove, his chief political strategist, said Bush intends to return "plenty of times" to California, though he is unlikely to match Clinton's habit of coming here on almost a monthly basis.

With most Californians in favor of price controls - and the governor continuing to highlight Bush's refusal to endorse them - it isn't clear whether Bush's visit will do much to repair the political damage he has suffered here.

Unless Californians are convinced that the federal government is taking major new steps to address the electricity crisis, says pollster DiCamillo, "this trip could do Bush more harm than good."

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