SAN FRANCISCO — WHEN Bob Dole begins a three-day campaign swing through California tomorrow, he'll need to get familiar with on-line networks and in-line skates.
The Senate majority leader is relatively unknown to Californians. He'll have to hone his message if he is to capture the state in the fall.
In contrast, the nominee-in-waiting's general-election opponent, Bill Clinton, has never stopped campaigning in California. He has piled up an impressive amount of support here, a state that by all accounts will be crucial to winning the White House in November - especially for the Democrats.
So even though Mr. Dole still faces an opponent in the California primary next Tuesday, the real purpose of his visit this weekend will be to test themes for the fall.
He will also have a more basic task: Assuring Republican Party leaders he will not abandon the fight for California, leaving the rest of the party in a lurch, as some thought George Bush did in 1992.
Next week's primary will "reassure California voters that Bob Dole is serious about California, and that he has a message for California that's going to resonate well for him," says Marty Wilson, Dole's California campaign manager.
California voters need no such reassurance from Clinton. The president has visited more here than any place else in his presidency - 23 times, most recently to identify himself with a volunteer effort to wire California schools to the Internet. He has also channeled federal contracts, tried to minimize the impact of military-base closings, and made other concessions to Golden State interests. "He's injected himself into issues important to California voters and stayed low profile with issues when he's on the wrong side," says Dan Schnur, former press secretary to Gov. Pete Wilson and a Republican political analyst.
The president's popularity
The success of Clinton's efforts shows up in the polls. His lead here is significantly greater than it is nationally and has not shifted even after Dole's emergence as the certain GOP nominee. In a poll released Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times, Clinton led Dole 58 percent to 37 percent.
Clinton's strength in California holds up under almost all conceivable scenarios. He wins easily with independent Ross Perot in the race, for example. Even against a hypothetical Dole ticket with popular retired Gen. Colin Powell, Clinton is preferred 52 percent to 42 percent.
Republican officials here dismiss those numbers as meaningless at this stage of the campaign. "This is as good as Clinton is going to get in the polls," says Sean Walsh, aide to Republican Governor Wilson. "Dole's got only one direction to go."
Dole backers here argue that the numbers only reflect the fact that California voters don't really know the Kansas senator yet. "They know Bob Dole on the news," says campaign manager Wilson, "but he needs to come out and Californize his message a little bit."
Dole's campaign here has been organized by Governor Wilson to emphasize a set of issues designed to resonate with California voters. He'll talk about controlling illegal immigration from Mexico in San Diego; restoring the cutbacks in defense spending that hit this state's economy hard at the Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber plant in Palmdale; ending affirmative action in conservative Orange County; and being tough on crime at San Quentin prison on San Francisco Bay.
According to Mr. Schnur, the Dole organization plans to carry out private polling before and after his visit to check the impact of this pitch to Californians. The results will allow them to more finely tune a campaign for this state that can close the huge gap with Clinton.
A sign of how Dole will do here comes in Tuesday's primary, where commentator Pat Buchanan is still on the ballot. Mr. Buchanan won nearly a third of Michigan and Wisconsin in this week's contest, and California has a strong conservative wing.
For the fall, the president has several things working strongly in his favor in this state, most of all a powerful economic recovery which has left many, according to a recent survey, feeling better off. Clinton also shows particularly strong support in polls among three key constituencies - women, older voters, and independents.
The cost of campaigning in this state, which because of its size requires a huge amount of television advertising to reach voters, puts added pressure on Dole, most analysts believe. "At Labor Day, if Dole is still trailing by double digits and beyond, I don't think they're going to waste the time here," predicts Mark DiCamillo, co-director of the prestigious California Poll.
Bailing out option
President Bush made that decision in 1992, abandoning the state early in the campaign in order to marshal his resources elsewhere. Republicans widely blame Bush's decision for the loss of both Senate seats to the Democrats as well as setbacks in the state legislature.
This time the Republicans worry they could lose hard-won control of the State Assembly and the congressional delegation. Ominously for the GOP, the Los Angeles Times poll showed that voters by a 50 to 40 percent margin now plan to vote for a Democrat in their congressional district.
"When the general election starts, we expect to see Senator Dole out here extensively," Mr. Walsh emphasizes. "The governor is insistent that we have a full California campaign."