Bob Dole's post-convention bounce in California, the largest electoral prize in the nation, has disappeared faster than a Pacific Ocean sunset.
Mr. Dole had closed President Clinton's lead to 10 percent in August, but the latest statewide polls conducted by the Field Institute show Mr. Clinton back ahead by his largest margin to date - 22 percent. California Republicans were quick to dismiss the poll as inaccurate, predicting a tight battle for the state's 54 electoral votes. "This is going to be fairly close," says state party chairman John Herrington.
But the clock is ticking, and observers say Dole will soon have to weigh the financial costs of staying in the race against the political costs of abandoning what might be a lost cause.
As yet, there is no sign that the Dole campaign is thinking of throwing in the towel. Party sources say campaign funds of $8 million to $10 million have been committed to the state and a large-scale television advertising effort is under way. Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp, considered popular here, will campaign aggressively in the two months left before the vote.
"That suggests they're going to play for at least a month," says political analyst Dan Schnur. "But if you don't see any improvement, they're going to have to win somewhere else." Privately, California Republican leaders admit they are running out of time. "There is not much left, other than the debates, to shake this race up," says one insider.
The cost of running in California, where TV advertising is the only way to reach the huge population, will eventually compel a decision by the Dole camp. A full-scale campaign costs about $16 million to $17 million, says Ken Khachigian, senior adviser in charge of the California campaign. With Dole finding himself behind even in traditionally 'safe' Republican states, that may be far too much to spend on a lost cause.
Republican strategists argue, however, that there are several reasons California must be contested, regardless of the polls. There is the electoral math. Republicans argue that they can reach the 270 electoral votes needed for election without winning California, by combining victory in the South, the Mountain West and Plains states, and in the Midwest. But they can't afford to repeat Bush's mistake of 1992, when he abandoned California early and let Clinton focus his time and money on other states.
According to this logic, Dole must spend at least enough to make it a competitive race. But this game plan is harder to follow if, come October, Dole still trails Clinton nationwide by 15 percent or so. "That is too big a gap to play state by state strategy games," says Mr. Schnur.
Dicier down ticket
Then there is worry that a Clinton landslide in California could give Democrats a gain of three to four seats in the state's House of Representatives delegation and return control of the State Assembly to them as well. "If Bill Clinton walks away with California, it gets dicier for us down ticket," says Republican Assemblyman James Brulte.
Finally, Republican strategists argue that the electorate is too volatile to conclude that California is lost. Voters here tend not to focus on elections until mid-October, they say. Even Republican voters make up their minds late, says informal Dole adviser Steve Merksamer, a Sacramento lawyer and a veteran of many California campaigns. He points to the comeback victories - from double-digit deficits in the polls - of Republican governors George Deukmajian and Pete Wilson.
"Voters have serious reservations about Clinton," says Mr. Merksamer, "but the Republican party has so far failed to make a convincing case as to why we'll do better than Clinton-Gore." Merksamer, like others here, says he believes the campaign lost its 'bounce' by straying from the strong, tax-cut focused economic message into issues such as drugs.
Democratic Party strategists see the recent upsurge in the polls as evidence that the economic issue is simply not working for Dole. "The numbers reflect that more Californians are just recovering from the recession, and they don't want to risk the prosperity that has just begun by buying into a risky economic plan," says Tom Umberg, director of the Clinton-Gore campaign in California.
A recent Field Institute poll on the future of work and health in California supports that contention. After years of deep recession, Californians show growing optimism about the economy. Among those with a generally positive view, Clinton wins 55 percent support and he leads Dole even among those with a pessimistic vision. "California is now No. 1 in job creation," says Assemblyman Brulte.