Orange County: Citrus Test For Bob Dole in Fall Election

Polls show Dole trailing Clinton in California conservative bastion

MICHAEL R., an unemployed twentysomething, explains that he "dislikes Bob Dole for lecturing Hollywood to cool it on violence in movies."

Rebecca L., a retired widow, says "Dole is certainly not too old physiologically [to be president] but is unfortunately wedded to pre-World War II thinking."

Mike W., a mid-career entrepreneur, complains that Dole is not adaptive to new ways of doing things.... [He's] stuck inside the Washington beltway," he says.

Dozens of interviews like these across this state's most Republican county underline why the Kansas senator is in danger of losing California - and with it America's biggest bonanza of electoral delegates come November.

Because of the person more than his political positions, because of his gray-suit style more than his substance, the name "Dole" often meets with uneasiness here.

"Dole doesn't resonate well in Orange County," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in California. "He's not of their culture; he doesn't speak Californian; he's not comfortable with them, and they are not comfortable with him."

That's good news for President Clinton and worse news than it might appear for the Senate majority leader. As traditional wisdom has it - and a close perusal of history confirms - Republican candidates need to win roughly 60 percent in Orange County to take the state's presidential nomination.

That was the story for candidates Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush from 1972 to 1988. When Bush faltered in 1992 - beating Clinton in Orange County by only 43 to 32 percent (but giving up 24 percent to Ross Perot) - he lost California and the White House. Republicans suffered up and down the state.

This is why pundits inside and out of California are buzzing over poll figures released here this month. In head-to-head matchups for the presidential election, Dole trails Clinton 44 to 46 percent in Orange County, says a Los Angeles Times Orange County poll conducted March 1 to 4. While analysts call that a virtual dead heat, it is far from the needed margin to overcome more Democratic voting elsewhere in the state, where Dole trails even worse - by some 20 percent.

Statewide, more Democrats are registered - about 48 percent to 40 percent for Republican - but the ratio is reversed in Orange County. To make up for that within Orange County, a candidate needs to appeal to a significant number of independents and Democratic swing voters, many who are fiscal conservatives. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush did that by talking up money issues - low taxes, program spending cuts, and economic stimulus - and getting tough on crime.

"That is a tough task for Dole to repeat when the economy is going so well with Clinton in office," says Mark Baldassare, director of the poll. "Right now, conservative Democrats and independents are lining up behind Clinton."

Since Clinton went to Washington, inflation and unemployment have fallen to 20-year lows, rates on mortgages have dropped sharply - all while the stock market has risen dramatically. "Many here are giving Clinton the credit for good economic times and are reluctant to change while things are so good," Mr. Baldassare says.

Meanwhile, folks here say the Republican revolution in Washington has focused on an agenda of personal rights and freedoms that typical Orange County residents see as government intrusion: abortion, censorship, prayer in schools, and family values.

"Insofar as people here associate Dole with those who want government to decide those things, it hurts him," says Eileen Padberg, a moderate republican political consultant in Orange County. "This is a county that supports individual freedoms. This is the West."

Another negative for Dole is his lack of clarity on immigration. Though he says he favors a "modest temporary reduction" in legal immigrants, he has avoided questions on whether he supports a Senate bill that would slice legal immigration.

On this issue, Dole must tread a fine line between two hard-core GOP constituencies here: those alarmed by record numbers of legal and illegal immigration and agribusinessmen who rely on immigrant labor.

But political observers add that Dole's negative poll figures could easily change. "Dole has just come through a bruising primary campaign with negative ads nipping all over him," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Poll.

To turn his popularity around here, observers say, Dole will have to distance himself from Washington and Republican politics-as-usual, and humanize himself for voters. "His wife [Elizabeth] can and will be a big plus on this front," says Ms. Jeffe.

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