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Bush Seen as Vulnerable In Vote-Rich California

Unemployment and abortion issues pose problems for the president

PRESIDENT Bush, hoping to blunt the insurgent candidacy of Patrick Buchanan in the South, may face more problems as he looks west. California is by no means a Bush stronghold.

The problem isn't so much Mr. Buchanan, though the columnist-turned-politician could prove to be an irritant if he is still in the race when the state's end-of-the-line primary comes up in June. The problem is the general election in November.

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Many strategists - including some Republicans - say the president faces a formidable task in keeping the state from going Democratic for the first time in 28 years. California has a higher unemployment rate than New Hampshire, deep rifts divide the Republican Party, and Mr. Bush has never had a natural affinity for the state.

While the Democrats still have to produce an electable nominee, and their current front-runners carry baggage of their own, many analysts agree the president is going to need a focused economic message and a full-throttle effort to capture California in November.

"I think the president is going to have a very difficult time out here," says Steve Merksamer, a prominent GOP strategist who was former Gov. George Deukmejian's chief of staff. "I think he is going to win. But he has a lot of work to do."

The anxiety among Republicans is understandable. With 54 of the nation's electoral votes - one-fifth of the number needed to be elected president - California will be pivotal in deciding who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.

Bush will be doing a little politicking on Wednesday, when he swings through the state to attend fund-raisers and a border environmental meeting in his second visit to California in less than a month. Analysts say, however, that as the election draws near, voters will be paying as close attention to what Bush has to say about jobs as to the number of appearances by the candidate and his surrogates.

While crime and the environment were important issues in 1988, the economy is likely to dominate this year.

"The California economy is not really as bad as it was in 1982-1983," says California pollster Mervin Field. "But the mood is worse. You are going to have to have more than a statistical recovery." In a poll by Mr. Field last month, a majority of Californians surveyed said they were not inclined to support the president this year.

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A recent survey by the San Diego Union-Tribune in conservative San Diego County showed the president's approval rating plummeting below 50 percent. It put him in a dead heat when matched against a generic Democratic opponent. "The president's numbers are down here," concedes an aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whose office will play a major role in the Bush reelection effort. "But so are everyone else's. There is no public official with a high approval rating."

California has never been an easy state for Bush. He has no roots here, and when favorite-son Ronald Reagan left Washington, so did most of the White House ties to the West Coast.

Bush carried the state in 1988 - but by only 3 percent of the vote at a time when the real estate and defense sectors were booming.

"It is a state I don't think he has ever connected with very well," says Sal Russo, a Republican strategist in Sacramento, Calif.

At the same time, the president will be dropping in on a state where GOP conservatives and moderates are feuding. Both Bush and Governor Wilson, who is expected to be the chairman here of the White House reelection effort, have been criticized from the right for raising taxes. Intra-party fighting has surfaced in the US Senate campaigns.

Some analysts think Buchanan, if he were to survive until June 2, could tap into this discontent. In California's winner-take-all primary the conservative TV commentator would likely get no delegates. The question is whether he could tweak Bush as he did in New Hampshire.

Many GOP operatives give Buchanan no chance of being in the race that long. And even if he is, some argue his "America First" message is too shrill for a state as internationally oriented and ethnically diverse as California.

Others say he won't be able to muster the time and resources to make a credible showing here and that Republicans will be dropping their protest votes and rallying around the president by then.

How well the president fares in California in the general election will depend on his Democratic rival. "Bush has a lot of problems, but so do the Democrats," says Field. "That's what makes the race so interesting."

History is on Bush's side: No Democrat has carried California since Lyndon Johnson thumped Barry Goldwater in 1964. He will also have the governor's formidable resources and political network. While some GOP operatives say Bush will have trouble with women voters in California because of his anti-abortion stance, they see familiarity and incumbency triumphing.

"People want experience," says Eileen Padberg, an Orange County-based Republican consultant who worked for Bush in 1988. "Although it is going to be a tough fight in California, I think George Bush will pull it off."

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