- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

President Bush was a considerate guest when he visited California recently so considerate that he left behind a gift for his hosts.
Two days after Mr. Bush headed back east, California's bellwether Field Poll showed the president defeating Al Gore, 48 percent to 41percent, in the Golden State, in a hypothetical match-up for 2004. That's a grim reality check for Mr. Gore, who carried this state by 12 points two years ago. Adding insult to injury: On the same day reporters received word from the San Francisco-based Field Institute, Mr. Gore just happened to be in where else, San Francisco raising money for California Gov. Gray Davis.
Granted, most polls for the next presidential election are about as valuable as the paper on which they're printed. But there are two things worth noting about the apparent change of heart in California. First, take this poll as evidence that Mr. Bush's popularity, as we approach the eight-month anniversary of the events of September 11, is neither an artificial bounce nor limited to Republican-friendly "red state" America. A majority of California males (52 percent) and a plurality of women (49 percent) said they preferred the president to Mr. Gore.
Second, if the president's advisers are serious about making these numbers count for real, they should closely examine this survey in particular, what it says about the urgency to make inroads into the California Hispanic vote.
It's an understatement to say that some Republicans inside the Beltway have a Hispanic fixation and, if they can't rewrite history, they at least want you to believe they're really, really sorry if they ever came across as racially insensitive.
For example, the Wall Street Journal has reported Republican Party National Chairman Marc Racicot as calling Proposition 187, California's anti-illegal immigration measure of 8 years ago, "a mistake that portrayed Republicans as 'not as sensitive' as they should be toward Hispanics." And, in what seemed a potshot at former California Gov. Pete Wilson, an ardent 187 supporter, Mr. Racicot said: "Leaders have a responsibility to make sure that they're not just right. They have a responsibility to make sure that they're not being opportunistic."
Let's put aside the fact that Proposition 187 would pass by the same margin today as it did eight years ago. Or, that apologies and regrets aren't what Republicans do best; in California, that's the Democrats' shtick. They're the ones who brought slave reparations to life and are fast in the process of removing Indian mascot names from state public schools.
Republicans need not apologize for their history, as long as they learn from past elections. In 1988, the elder George Bush lost California's Hispanic vote, 65 percent to 34 percent, en route to a three-point victory over Michael Dukakis. A dozen years later, George W. Bush lost the Hispanic vote, 68 percent to 29 percent, en route to a 12-point loss. Yes, the number of California Hispanic voters has doubled over that period, to 14 percent of the state's electorate, or one in seven voters. And it's a genuine long-term concern, as that electorate will grow in coming elections. But there's good news here: Mr. Bush's 29 percent was an eight-point improvement over Bob Dole's low-water 21 percent four years previously.
Now, let's look at another set of numbers: how Republicans have done among California women. Bush the elder carried 48 percent of the women's vote (a one-point disadvantage) in 1988. In 2000, women, 58 percent to 37 percent, clobbered George W. Bush. But that was only a two point improvement over 1996, and in a race that Mr. Gore did not heavily invest money or presence.
Herein lies the Republicans' foremost problem every fourth November in California. For all the Sturm und Drang over Proposition 187, California Republicans have been hit hardest by a "fem-gap" that has women walking away from GOP candidates in alarming numbers. California's 68 percent to 29 percent Hispanic split in 2000 translated to a 5.46 percent edge for Mr. Gore in the overall state tally. However, the 58 percent to 37 percent women's split, in that same contest against Mr. Gore, cost Mr. Bush double the damage: an 11.13 percent deficit, as women accounted for 53 percent of the vote compared to just 14 percent for Hispanics.
Narrowing the "fem-gap" is the key to future Republican success, and a principal reason why President Bush rose so dramatically in that latest Field Poll. According to the survey, the president is doing better among California Hispanics (dead even with Mr. Gore at 44 percent apiece), while at the same turning that 21 percent women's deficit of two years ago into a two-point advantage. If Mr. Bush maintains those numbers, California is his and his alone in two years.
Well, that and if his handlers listen to savvy California insiders like the strategist Tony Quinn, who maintains that the key to winning California is capturing a swing vote of independent voters whom he defines as an amalgam of Latinos, new economy techies and upper-income women. According to Mr. Quinn, this bloc is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. If Mr. Bush keeps their trust through November 2004, they become a 21st century version of blue collar Reagan Democrats, and the president's ticket to a Reaganesque landslide victory.
In the meantime, the Latino courtship continues for the Republican Party. Later this month, the Republican National Committee will launch a Spanish-language television news magazine it calls "Abriendo Caminos" ("Forging New Paths").
But as the California poll numbers suggest, maybe a path already exists. If there's still time for a name change, given what we've just seen in California, how about "Abre Los Ojos" "Open Your Eyes"?

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former director of public affairs for California Gov. Pete Wilson.

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