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Will the Golden State Be ‘In Play’ for George Bush in 2004?

USA Today’s Judy Keen recently quoted President Bush’s campaign manager Ken Mehlman as saying “anybody who says California is impossible or out of play is wrong.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Well, since I would prefer not to be wrong, I won’t say that.

What I will say, however, is that Mehlman has focused, probably intentionally, on the wrong question. It’s not a matter of whether the state is winnable for Bush. (Under certain circumstances, every state is in play.) It’s a matter of campaign priorities.

Specifically, for Mehlman, Karl Rove and the rest of the president’s political strategists, the question is whether they should put resources into California, or whether the time and money that they would need to invest there would be better spent in a handful of other states.

Yes, Republicans are likely to have more money than they can spend efficiently next year. If the White House has $200 million or more to spend between now and the Republican National Convention in early September 2004, as well as tens of millions more to spend after the New York City convention, they can afford to sprinkle a few million dollars in the Golden State just to see what will happen.

Moreover, if Republicans can show some movement in California, they can force Democrats to redirect some of their time and money to the state. And when Democrats are playing defense in the Golden State, they aren’t playing offense in a couple of other states where the president’s advantage is shaky.

Of course, some of the cash spent in California wouldn’t be available elsewhere. Republican campaign specialists acknowledge that some of Bush’s California spending in 2000 was money raised in that state and earmarked specifically to be spent there. That is likely to happen again next year, even if the Golden State really isn’t in play.

But Bush’s strategists ultimately will have to decide on priorities, and in 2004 there are at least five states carried by Al Gore in 2000 — Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon — that are far better opportunities for the GOP than California will be next year.

Gore won Iowa by 4,144 votes out of 1.3 million cast, a victory margin of three-tenths of a percentage point. His margin in Wisconsin was 5,708 votes out of almost 2.6 million cast, a two-tenths of 1 percent margin. And in Oregon, Bush lost by 6,765 votes out of 1.5 million cast, about one-half of 1 point.

And none of those states came close to rivaling New Mexico, which Gore carried by just 366 votes, in closeness.

Bush would be better off spending time and money in that group of states, as well as the seven other states that he lost but in which he drew a larger percentage of the vote than California.

The California recall did boost Republican morale in the Golden State. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock, the two major Republicans in the race, drew a combined 61 percent of the

second-question vote, and given the big turnout in the state, that is no small accomplishment.

But voters apparently concluded that both of the October ballot questions — the vote on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis (D) and the vote on his replacement — were referenda on Davis. And on that matter, a majority of Californians wanted real change.

Schwarzenegger’s promises to restrain spending and eliminate the car tax found a receptive audience, and if he succeeds, his party will benefit in the state. But the 2004 presidential contest will include a number of issues, including abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, that weren’t factors in the recall (because Schwarzenegger’s views don’t differ dramatically from those of Davis). When voters factor those issues into their decision-making process, Bush will become much less appealing than Schwarzenegger was to California voters.

While Bush strategists cite the relatively strong showing among women and Hispanics posted by Schwarzenegger and McClintock, that’s exactly why Bush probably won’t carry California next year.

The two Republican candidates in the replacement question drew 59 percent of women. If Bush wins 59 percent of women nationally, how many Electoral College votes will the Democratic nominee win? Three? Fifteen?

Rather than suggesting that Bush has a “window of opportunity,” the two Republicans’ performance among women demonstrates exactly how atypical the recall showing was.

While Bush strategists don’t want to write off any state, they are privately realistic about their chances of winning in California. All they are really saying now is that “there’s an opportunity” in California, and they are doing the groundwork to take advantage of that opportunity if it presents itself next year.

Eleven months from now, if George Bush is fighting for California, you’ll know that he has the 2004 race all wrapped up and resting safely in his hip pocket.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Rothenberg Political Report

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