- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

The top political adviser of Gov. Gray Davis of California, Garry South, is worried Al Gore may have made a huge mistake by taking America's biggest state for granted in his down-to-the-wire presidential campaign.

A month ago, Mr. South confidently told me "there is no way" George W. Bush is going to carry California and win its 54 electoral votes. But in a recent telephone interview, the governor's adviser is not making that absolute claim anymore.

Instead, Mr. South is singing the praises of Mr. Bush's top California strategist, state Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte. He calls him "one of the savviest political strategists I've ever met" and praises the way Mr. Brulte has run the Bush campaign in a state Mr. Gore considered a given when he led Mr. Bush by double-digit margins there this summer.

"They've had a steady campaign here to inch this up little by little, and they are ratcheting it up even more now in a furious end game. And that is what they are planning to do," Mr. South said.

He repeats his frustration with the Gore campaign and mocks its refusal to spend any money on ads in the state. "We're in the low single digits. The race will tighten up when you have one side [the Bush campaign] spending millions on the air and the other side not providing an answer to those attacks."

"I'm still not happy with the fact that [the Bush ads] still have not been answered, and that there are no plans [by the Gore high command] to answer them," he told me.

Mr. South has studied the vice president's shrinking poll numbers, watched the Bush campaign's steady, below-the-radar advance in the state, and argued until he was hoarse with Gore campaign officials that they were in danger of losing California if they did not change strategies.

Late last week, when he learned Mr. Bush had abruptly changed plans and was coming out to California to campaign for two days, and was putting another $1.5 million into new ads in all of the major media markets in the final week of the race, Mr. South grew more depressed. He knew Mr. Bush's advisers must have polling numbers showing the race nearly within their grasp as Mr. Gore's own internal numbers showed and that Mr. Gore could be slipping even further.

"If Bush is preparing to take $1.5 million out of his general election allocation and spend it in California, that tells you something," Mr. South told me just before Bush barnstormed the state on Monday and Tuesday with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

"The Bush campaign's not filled with idiots. They are not going to make an expenditure like this without seeing something out there," he said.

Clearly, Mr. Bush's 11th-hour decision to devote two full days to California, when he could be spending that time in more pivotal battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan or even Florida, was a huge gamble in time and resources.

But, as Mr. South readily acknowledges, the stakes in California are much bigger for Mr. Gore than for Mr. Bush. The vice president, leading in 13 states (mostly in the Northeast), still remains about 80 electoral votes short of the 270 needed to win the presidency, even with California in his column.

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, who is ahead in 26 states (the Western Plains, Mountain States and almost all of the South), is about 30 votes short of 270 a number he can reach by winning just two or three of the dozen or so states that remain tossups.

Mr. Bush "can win without California," Mr. South told me. But for Al Gore, "The bottom line remains that if we can't carry California, it doesn't matter what other states Gore carries, including Florida."

Mr. Bush's swift California flanking maneuver forced Mr. Gore to rush out to the state this week to stop his slide in the polls. And in a last-minute move that further revealed Mr. Gore's weaknesses there, Bill Clinton was brought in by Mr. Davis, over the Gore campaign's opposition, to energize the party's base vote. "Clinton is still magic with the Democratic base," a relieved Mr. South said.

Mr. Davis and Mr. South fear that a lower-than-expected Democratic-base turnout next Tuesday will not only endanger Mr. Gore's chances, but also undermine their party's other candidates down the ballot especially in the closely fought House races.

A massive voter-turnout offensive is being executed by both campaigns, with a major drive by the Bush campaign for the state's huge Hispanic community. If Mr. Bush can win just a third of that vote, as Ronald Reagan did before him, California could be his on Election Night.

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