LOS ANGELES -- "Can you tell me," asked Jay Ziegler, a Clinton bureaucrat in Washington who has come home to California to be state director of Al Gore's campaign for president, "what Bush is doing here?"
While tinged in sarcasm, the question was sincere. With George W. Bush falling behind in the battleground states 2,000 miles away that will determine who is elected president, it did seem strange that the Republican candidate spent two days campaigning in California last week. To Democrats here and many Republicans back in Washington, the Golden State is definitely in Gore's column Nov. 7 -- and Bush is wasting his time.
The reasons for Bush's presence tell something about his campaign. He and his managers do not join in the panic afflicting fellow Republican politicians nationwide. For all of Gore's apparent dominance here, the Bush team has not given up on California and its harvest of 54 electoral votes. But even if he is sure to lose them, Bush is not about to abandon fellow Republicans in the nation's most populous state.
By this time in the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, losing GOP candidates had written off California. But a year ago when Bush was lining up the state Republican establishment for his nomination, he pledged he would fight to the finish in California. Last Wednesday night, he held two Orange County fund-raisers whose proceeds will stay in the state to help hard-pressed local candidates. What's more, Bush's managers intend to go through with another California sojourn in early October.
That brings more smiles to the faces of the Gore brain trust in Nashville, which sees Bush squandering precious resources on a romantic quest in the West. Gore's California Democratic leaders only shrug.
The attitude of local Democrats can best be described as smug, but still seems justified. Their private polls show Gore 13 points ahead in the state and rising. By sheer perseverance in endless transcontinental journeys, the vice president has overcome voter resistance here that was frankly admitted by Democrats only a year ago.
That's not all. California Democrats count on picking up at least two and possibly four additional congressional seats that could tip the balance of power in the House. Rep. Tom Campbell is running an underfinanced, ludicrous campaign against Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, moving to her left on narcotics policy and other social issues. The Republican takeover of the state Assembly in the 1994 election seems part of ancient history. A school voucher ballot proposition appears headed for defeat.
More ominous for the GOP are rosy future prospects for Democrats. Congressional reapportionment next year promises Republican disaster. While Bush may cut into the critically important Hispanic vote (whose support he again sought last Thursday in a long session at Santa Ana High School), the new legal immigrants are solidly Democratic. Gov. Gray Davis, raising bundles of money for his 2002 re-election, is the state's most dominant political figure since Ronald Reagan. Republicans forlornly await salvation from a second Reagan.
But there is not now and may never be another Reagan. When Bush battled Sen. John McCain in the state's primary last spring, I reported that California Republicans regarded the governor of Texas as their surrogate leader. If Bush had followed Bob Dole's course four years ago in forgetting about California, well-placed Republicans here make clear, it would be a breach of faith.
Actually, unless the Bush campaign collapses nationally, his California outlook may not be hopeless. "I believe the state is in play," Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP operative who was a senior McCain adviser and is renowned for realism, told me. That means that if Bush survives the current Gore surge, he should not give up hope here.
Bush got mixed private reviews from the state's Republican elite when they attended his fund-raising reception in Irvine. Some thought he seemed tired and not as ebullient as usual. But others were cheered that he was hitting hard on tax cuts and on the latest Justice Department investigation of Gore's 1996 fund raising. Most of all, the beleaguered California Republicans were glad he was here. Many had not expected it.