- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has made dramatic gains in California, a must-win state for Al Gore, prompting California Gov. Gray Davis to move to the head of the vice president's list of potential running mates.

"If Al Gore has trouble winning California, he has real problems nationally," said Gore adviser Peter Fenn, who would not confirm what other Democrats have said privately that Mr. Gore already has "vetted" Mr. Davis.

California Democratic campaign consultant William A. Carrick agreed that if Mr. Gore names Mr. Davis at the Democratic nominating convention next month, it would confirm serious trouble for his candidacy.

What set advisers in both parties to buzzing about Mr. Davis were the two latest surveys of likely voters in California.

Republican pollster Linda Divall's American Viewpoint Poll, conducted June 8-14, with a 3.5 percentage point error margin, showed Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore running even at 39 percent each, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader taking 5 percent virtually all of it from likely Gore voters.

Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan got 2 percent, and 15 percent of California's likely voters said they were undecided.

A Public Opinion Strategies survey taken June 14-18 showed Mr. Gore with 41 percent support to Mr. Bush's 38 percent, a statistical tie with Mr. Gore's 3-point lead within the poll's error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll also had Mr. Nader at 5 percent and Mr. Buchanan at 2 percent, with undecideds at 14 percent.

California's 54 electoral votes constitute 20 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency by far the largest bloc of electoral votes. Since 1952, California has only twice backed the presidential race loser Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and Gerald R. Ford in 1976.

President Clinton's 1992 and 1996 California victories made a major change in the political map, since the state had been reliably Republican. Political analysts say it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Gore loses California but wins the presidency.

Even if Mr. Bush fails to snatch California from Mr. Gore, a close race there would force the Democrats to spend heavily to keep in their column a state they mathematically almost have to win. Such a rear-guard action would help the Republicans in other battleground states.

Putting a popular California governor on the ticket might let Democrats avoid that unpleasant choice and force the hard choice on the Republicans, Mr. Fenn said.

"It takes the pressure off Gore in California and at the same time forces Bush to decide whether to abandon the state or waste time and money making a play there," he said.

Mr. Carrick added that he did not think Mr. Gore needs California's governor on the ticket to win.

"But Davis would be an attractive way for Gore to tie Bush down in California," Mr. Carrick said.

"If Bush decided not to play in California, Congressional Republicans would be furious," he said. "They'd tell Bush, 'Hello. Do we need another Democratic landslide in California, and for Democrats to pick up four or five seats? I don't think so.' "

Republican pollster Ed Goeas sees three dynamics Hispanics, Mr. Nader and intensity behind Mr. Gore's California problems and the buzz about Mr. Davis.

"Bush is cutting into the normally Democratic Hispanic vote, and even in California he is running ahead of what usually Republicans run in the state," he said. "Nader is taking around 6 percent out of Gore's hide in California, and Republican voters are more intense about voting for Bush than Democrats are for Gore at this point."

A May 15-28 survey of 1,002 registered Hispanic voters by Bendixen and Associates confirms Mr. Bush's appeal to Hispanics.

Analysts in both parties agree the Texas governor needs only to boost his share of the Latino vote rather than win a majority to defeat Mr. Gore in California.

The poll shows Mr. Gore beating Mr. Bush by 54 percent to 32 percent among Latinos. But Mr. Bush's showing is far superior to Bob Dole's 21 percent in 1996.

Veteran campaign strategists in both parties had assumed that California was not winnable for Mr. Bush and that he would talk it up, make visits but not plow the $20 million to $25 million into the state required to contend.

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