Bush campaigns in crucial Central Valley

LODI, Calif. - Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush brought his whistle-stop tour to this Central Valley city Thursday in an effort to build support in California's vote-rich farm belt.

He was rewarded with a crowd of several thousand people who surged around his campaign train.

GOP officials insist they can win California by appealing to minority voters, particularly Latinos, a growing segment of the Central Valley's population. Democrats say voters will see through the rhetoric.

Bush dismissed speculation he will write off California in the fall campaign. ''That's called wishful thinking on the part of our opponents,'' Bush he told the crowd. ''November is going to be Bush-Cheney country in California.''

Republicans are buoyed by a new Public Policy Institute of California poll that shows Bush nearly even with Democratic Vice President Al Gore in the state.

''For Democrats, it's the shot heard 'round the world: that California is not in the definite Dem column - it's a battleground,'' said state GOP spokesman Stuart DeVeaux.

Democrats retain a substantial voter registration edge in California: 6.7 million registered Democrats to 5.1 million Republicans.

Though California's 58 counties are evenly split between the two major parties, Democrats dominate in the most populous coastal areas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

They have a particularly large advantage among Latinos, the fastest-growing segment. The PPIC poll showed Hispanic voters favoring Gore over Bush, 55 percent to 29 percent.

In San Joaquin County - where Lodi is - Republicans edge Democrats by about 2,400 voters. But the GOP trails Democrats by 10,000 registered voters in more heavily populated Fresno County.

Republicans are 20,000 votes ahead in the Central Valley's Kern County, home to Bakersfield. But they trail by roughly 65,000 votes in Sacramento County, and about 15,000 votes in Stanislaus County, home to Modesto.

California also has 2.1 million independent voters who are being courted by Bush and Gore.

Republicans can do well in the Central Valley, Orange County and the San Diego area, but ''I think the thing where we're going to hurt Democrats is we're going to tap into their Democratic base in Los Angeles with the support of Hispanics and minorities,'' DeVeaux said.

Bush appealed in Spanish for Latios' votes during his Lodi stop. With their support, ''Vamos a ganar,'' Bush said, which means ''We're going to win.''

Bush's efforts to win Latino voters included a first-ever Spanish convention speech by Assemblyman Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria at last week's GOP convention. His California swing comes just days before Democrats try to take the spotlight with their national convention in Los Angeles.

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis may appeal to Hispanic voters at next week's convention by signing a bill creating a holiday for state workers to honor late United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez' son-in-law, praised Bush for reaching out to Latinos, including speaking to them in Spanish. Bush's effort won him wild cheers from a largely Hispanic crowd of about 2,500 - including some sign-waving farmworkers - who greeted him during a train stop in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday.

The theme was different in Lodi, where a few Latinos sat on the edges of the mostly white crowd. Several said they are skeptical of Bush's motives.

''He's just trying to win some votes from doing it. I think it might work - by telling them in Spanish, he gets his point across,'' said Juan Hernandez of Oxnard.

''It's a good thing, but it's also patronizing,'' said Jack Garcia of Lodi. ''They're both trying to get all the votes they can get.''

However, Julio Valdez Solorzano of Lodi said he favors Bush because he's ''por Latinos.''

Bush started his train tour in Ventura County on Wednesday. The whistle-stop tour continued along the Central Coast, in agriculturally rich San Luis Obispo County.

On Thursday, Arizona Sen. John McCain joined Bush in Salinas where they spoke at the National Steinbeck Center and at the train station.

Thousands gathered, many waiting hours. The largely white crowd held Bush-Cheney signs and chanted support while mariachis and high school cheerleaders performed.

Democratic officials and environmentalists beat Bush to the Lodi train station Thursday afternoon to decry his environmental record in Texas, criticism they expect to play well in California.

Democrats can paint Bush as too conservative for California on other issues as well, Democratic campaign adviser Bob Mulholland said.

''Lookit: California is not going to support an oil-company ticket, nor a ticket that's committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, nor one that voted for the cop-killer bullet,'' Mulholland said.

GOP nominee Bob Dole also tried to win the state four years ago, when the Republican convention was in San Diego, and came away with little more than 38 percent of the vote, Mulholland noted.


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