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'Coattails' could tip the House

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

By Paul Van Slambrouck Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2000


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.

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"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.

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.