LODI, CALIF. — Bob Dole returned to California this week with one clear goal: to shake off persistent reports that the presumed Republican nominee has already conceded this state to President Clinton without a fight.
"I'm here to tell you we're going to spend a lot of time in this state," Mr. Dole told a cheering crowd of party faithful in Ontario, east of Los Angeles. "We're going to carry California in November."
Behind the bravado, Dole's campaign staff has crafted a "heartland strategy" for California. He will shun the liberal coastal strongholds of San Francisco and Los Angeles in favor of the inland conservative fortresses of suburban Orange County and the agricultural Central Valley. Dole's prairie values of hard work, small government, fewer taxes, and "Bible belt" traditionalism will ring true there, strategists calculate. Given time to make himself known to California voters, Dole can come back from his 20-point deficit in the polls, they argue.
Conversations with voters in this typical Central Valley town of grape vineyards, fruit trees, and pickup trucks lend evidence that Dole's bedrock conservatism has plenty of support here. But to get those voters out to the polls in November, he first must overcome their continued doubts about his effectiveness, a skepticism compounded by a widespread antipathy to politicians in general.
Dole's dramatic resignation from his longtime Washington perch as the senior senator from Kansas was clearly intended to help soften his association with the much-despised political class. But in this quiet spot deep in California's heartland, the gesture gets a decidedly mixed review.
Mary Lee, a retired school administrator, speaks for many in this community in firmly opposing the reelection of President Clinton. Clinton's support for abortion rights ranks high on her list of reasons for this stance. But this registered Republican is not sure yet if she will vote come this fall.
"I would like to vote Republican, but I'm not convinced Bob Dole could win," she says, standing outside the local K-Mart. "My friends and I wish the Republican Party had a little stronger candidate, somebody with a little bit more charisma."
Others speak in more angry terms about their choices in November. "This year, I can't really see any reason to vote," says Carey, a firefighter who declined to give his full name. "The guy who's got the most money wins. The little guy has no say in government anymore."
This former longtime serviceman has no time for Clinton, whose name alone evokes a grimace of distaste. But he finds Dole, whom he describes as "stuffy" and "stiff," a distant figure. "Dole's not a good old boy," says Carey. "[Former President Ronald] Reagan was one of us."
Ken Kachigian, Dole's newly appointed senior adviser in charge of the California campaign, acknowledges that the immediate aim is to energize Republican voters. "If you're behind 20 points, that means you're behind to some extent in your own constituency among Republicans," he told reporters on the campaign trail.
Dole's one-and-a-half-day Golden State swing was designed to touch those Republican bases - from the Inland Empire, the agro-suburban counties east of Los Angeles, down to conservative San Diego and up to Sacramento in the Central Valley. "That's the ground we have to win back," Mr. Kachigian says.
Dole's resignation move was a key to mobilizing Republicans, says the veteran political consultant. "What Senator Dole did is really send a message about his passion to be president," he says.
Some in this town dismiss Dole's attempt to put some distance between his presidential bid and his Washington record. "He's a politician. Politicians don't change their colors," firefighter Carey says.
But probably an equal number of Lodi residents saw things the way Melissa Ohm does. "He looks better in my eyes for doing that," says Ms. Ohm, the daughter of a farm family who is just finishing her first year as an elementary school teacher. "It means he's serious about being president."
Standing outside Heritage Elementary School as parents arrive to pick up their children, Ohm gently expresses the frustrations of being a bilingual teacher in a class where only three students speak English. Most of the children are Mexican, many the offspring of farmworkers who enter the country illegally, she says. Ohn seems a bit embarrassed to admit she voted in favor of Proposition 187, a 1994 California ballot initiative to limit school and other services to illegal aliens and their families. "It's our taxpayers' money, and they're not putting into the pot," she says.
Clinton is not without his supporters in this Central Valley town. Among them are two retired truck drivers who join their friends every morning along the counter at the Hollywood Cafe.
"I think the president is more for the average person than Dole would be," says Amo, peering out from under a straw boater.
A less enthusiastic endorsement comes from his friend Joseph Moreci. "To me they're just a bunch of phonies," he says in a sweeping indictment of all politicians. "Bob Dole - I really don't care too much for him. In the first place, I think he's too old. I'm for Clinton, more or less."