'Coattails' could tip the House

GOP candidates in California need Bush's aid. But down in polls, he may cut back visits.

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It wasn't your typical morning in Lakewood Park. Lines snaked through the suburban streets at 7 a.m., and startled residents heading for their cars collided with a human chain blocking their driveways.

"Gore," explained one woman simply, as she waited in line for an outdoor rally that would feature the vice president.

Al Gore was here in the heart of Silicon Valley last week, not only to solidify his lead in the nation's largest state, but also to help the Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives.

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California could prove pivotal in that battle. Democrats need to pick up six seats to wrest a majority back from the Republicans, and this state alone could produce half of those victories.

"The Democrats think California is the crux of their strategy to take back the House," says John Kohut of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.

The morning of Mr. Gore's visit was a clear illustration of the importance of "coattails" in the fight for the House. Gore shared a stage with Mike Honda, a former schoolteacher turned state legislator now bidding for a seat in the US Congress. Mr. Honda is battling another former state legislator, Republican Jim Cunneen. On the importance of Gore's visit, Honda says: "It's like having the tallest kid on the school playground be on your basketball team."

Along with this race, the Rothenberg report identifies southern California seats held by Republicans Steve Kuykendall and James Rogan as tossups or tilting to the Democrats.

Given the stakes, each party seems determined to use their top personalities to sway votes. President Clinton hosted a fundraiser for Honda this weekend, and Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush is expected to join Mr. Cunneen this week.

While it is traditional for presidential nominees to help lower-ticket candidates, the coattail phenomenon has particular salience this election. Even a mild effect from one race to another could have a big impact overall.

Yet the phenomenon has a California twist: While the state may prove central in determining who controls the House, it is less in play in the presidential contest. Polls give Gore a solid lead - 9 points according to the latest survey by the Public Policy Institute of California - raising the question of how much longer either candidate will see benefits in visiting.

So far, somewhat surprisingly, Bush has been the most frequent visitor. That's partly because of a commitment he made early on not to abandon the state as his father did in 1992 and Bob Dole did in 1996.

"Without George Bush, we'd be totally at the mercy of the Democrats in California," says state Senator Jim Brulte. Bush, according to Mr. Brulte, has raised $8 million for the state party, more than half of its entire war chest for the 2000 election.

Money aside, the Texas governor's moderate image is the face the GOP would like to show to the state's increasingly influential Latino population, which thus far has voted solidly Democratic.

While Bush has been a reliable friend of the state party, some wonder whether his commitment to campaign here regularly could come back to haunt him. Gore California strategist Garry South likens it to a 1960 promise by Richard Nixon to campaign in all states. That resulted in Nixon being in Alaska in the last days of that year's razor-thin contest, which he lost.

But there are risks for the state party, as well. The coattail effect can work both ways: Just as a huge margin of victory by a top-ticket candidate can sweep others along, a large downdraft can do the opposite. "For two years, California Republicans have been putting all their eggs in the Bush basket," says GOP consultant Dan Schnur. "It's a terrible gamble."

There are signs the presidential contenders' visits to the state may soon decline. "I'm not sure we're going to get Gore back out here before the election," concedes Mr. South. And while the Bush camp insists the state is still competitive, analysts say his forays to California will become fewer and briefer if his poll numbers stay weak in the state.

For the moment, though, Honda and Cunneen are basking in the glow of the national attention their race is receiving.

Cunneen, a former high-tech executive, is hoping to attract the socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters that elected Republican Tom Campbell in the district. Mr. Campbell is vacating the seat to run for US Senate.

Honda, a former schoolteacher who learned Spanish in the Peace Corps, is a Clinton-style New Democrat who hopes the district's predominantly Democratic voters will send him to Congress.

Perhaps sensing the power of coattails, Honda likes to emphasize the national importance of the district in helping Democrats gain a majority in the House. Cunneen, on the other hand, says it would be no surprise if voters cast ballots for one party for president and another for Congress.

Such a scenario would not be novel in this district, which voted for both Clinton and Campbell in the last election. But over the past 20 years, according to political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in California, such ticket splitting has declined, from 44 percent of US congressional races in 1972 to 25 percent in 1996.

What strong presidential contenders tend to do, says Larry Gerston of San Jose State University, is increase turnout. "The marginal voters who come out for a presidential candidate will then attach themselves to other party nominees," he explains.

The Public Policy Institute of California reports there are already "signs of a coattail effect" in the state, because 86 percent of Gore supporters also favor their Democratic candidate for Congress.

Mr. Gerston says there are two reasons for Bush's steady forays to the state, despite weak poll numbers. One is to force Gore to continue to spend time and money in California. In addition, "the last thing Bush wants is to be viewed as the guy who turned over the House to the Democrats," says Gerston. "He can help make sure that doesn't happen by spending time in California."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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