But money, allies in Congress up for grabs
By Paul Pringle / The Dallas Morning News
LOS ANGELES â€“ Long written off as safe territory for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, California suddenly appears to be as crucial a front line in the presidential election as any Midwestern tossup state.
But appearances can deceive. Most pollsters and political professionals insist that the real fight in California is about Congress and campaign cash â€“ not the White House.
"There has been no point where California became a battleground state," said Mark Baldassare, a poll director for the Public Policy Institute of California. "I don't think there is anything in the control of the campaigns that could change the race dramatically in California."
A casual observer might infer otherwise from this week's events. Mr. Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush shuffled their travel schedules to mine the Golden State for votes. The Texas governor brought along GOP Sen. John McCain and is expected to dispatch running mate Dick Cheney to California any day now.
On Thursday, President Clinton hosted a rally in South Los Angeles to drum up voter turnout for Mr. Gore. Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore's rival for the nomination, has also visited California to promote his erstwhile opponent. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is due in the state Saturday.
The upswing in California stumping seemed to be fueled by speculation, widely reported by the news media, that Mr. Gore's grip on the state was slipping.
Mr. Bush and his supporters generated much of that buzz, but then so did operatives of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, a major ally of the vice president. And one poll conducted by Mr. Baldassare three weeks ago suggested the California contest had tightened to within the survey's margin of error.
Now, however, there is a consensus among political pulse-takers that California's 54 electoral votes remain solidly in the Gore column.
The California Field Poll, released Thursday, gives Mr. Gore 47 percent of likely voters to Mr. Bush's 40 percent. Mr. Nader had 4 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Other polls published in the past week or so showed the vice president enjoying leads of up to 10 percentage points.
"If Bush carries California, he's going to carry 47 other states with it," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant in Los Angeles. "He spent 24 hours here. Meanwhile, he's back to Michigan."
Mr. Hoffenblum noted that Mr. Bush had made a firm commitment at the start of his drive not to abandon California in the endgame, regardless of the polls. "Bush is just following through on that," he said.
The last two Republican nominees â€“ Bob Dole in 1996 and Mr. Bush's father, former President George Bush, in 1992 â€“ ditched California as soon as Mr. Clinton's poll numbers reached prohibitive heights.
California's GOP bosses blamed those weak presidential efforts for dampening Republican turnout in the state, and thus hurting the party's congressional prospects and local fund raising.
Gerald Parsky, the younger Mr. Bush's California chairman, acknowledges that the candidate's agenda includes buoying the down-the-ticket hopefuls.
But Mr. Parsky also maintains that the state is still up for grabs on the presidential level, although he stops short of saying Mr. Bush is ahead.
"There's no question that winning California in this campaign has been very difficult," he said.
It wasn't always that way. Before Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992, Republican presidential candidates had captured the state in six straight elections.
Today, the GOP's woes are reflected foremost in the state's voter registration tallies. Democrats hold a 10-percent advantage in the rolls. They also occupy all but one of California's statewide elective offices â€“ low-key Secretary of State Bill Jones is the exception â€“ and most of its congressional seats.
"It's a Democrat-controlled state," said Mr. Parsky.
The tilted playing field hasn't dissuaded Mr. Bush and the GOP from bombarding California with advertising. They have bought about $1.5 million in television commercials a week since mid-October.
Mr. Gore has done no advertising in the state. His visit Tuesday was the first since the Democratic National Convention in August, held at Los Angeles' Staples Center.
That is all according to the plan that keeps Mr. Gore in states too close to call, says the vice president's California spokesman, Peter Ragone.
"The truth is the national media have been bamboozled by the Republicans," said Mr. Ragone. "Vice President Gore's support in California has been consistent throughout this campaign."
But Mr. Gore's absence, both in person and on the airwaves, clearly angered California's Democratic honchos. They were counting on a strong Gore presence to help the party wrest as many as five congressional seats from the Republicans, get a school bond measure passed and open contributors' wallets.
Garry South, Mr. Davis' political director, went public with the governor's grievances last week. He said Mr. Davis' own polls had tracked a steady Gore decline â€“ and even posted a small lead for Mr. Bush on a couple of days.
Mr. South's distress signals left the Gore camp steaming, but they paid off. The vice president put California back on his itinerary, if only briefly. And Mr. Clinton, who boasts high job-approval ratings in California, is marshaling the turnout and headlining fund-raisers for three congressional candidates and the state party.
"I feel very comfortable," said Mr. South, who added that Mr. Davis' surveys are now logging a surge for Mr. Gore. "There's nobody better than Mr. Clinton at motivating the Democratic base. ... It secures California for Gore