Bob Dole may be in the fast lane now in his long-sought quest for the Republican presidential nomination, but in the largest state in the nation the Kansas senator could be in for a bumpy ride next fall, when he takes on President Clinton.
California holds its primary Tuesday, and Dole is expected to handily beat commentator Pat Buchanan. With enough delegates already in hand to clinch the nomination, the immediate importance of the primary has been vastly diminished.
But in the state known for setting trends, Dole appears at this point to be out of step with voters, according to polls and interviews with residents of America’s left coast. A poor showing here in the fall could dampen Dole’s chances nationally, much as George Bush’s re-election effort was hurt by his loss of California in 1992.
A Los Angeles Times poll released last week found Dole trailing Clinton 58 percent to 37 percent in California. Respondents said the president is better able to handle a variety of issues.
The good news for Dole in the poll was it found that he would beat Buchanan in the primary, 52 percent to 18 percent.
A more telling sign of potential problems for the Republican candidate was a recent survey of voters in Orange County - the bastion of Republicanism in California - showing Clinton and Dole in a statistical dead heat - 46 percent for the Democrat, 44 percent for the Republican.
Mark Baldassare, a pollster at the University of California at Irvine, said Dole is polling about the same as Bush did in 1992 - one of the early signals that the former president was in trouble. Baldassare said candidates generally need about 60 percent of the vote in Orange County to win statewide.
Baldassare said Clinton is benefiting from the rebounding economy and the Republican Party’s emphasis on social issues - such as abortion - which do not resonate among Californians who, he said tend, to be “pro personal choice, pro personal freedoms.”
Baldassare said Dole “doesn’t have the name recognition or charisma as a Ronald Reagan” and that “people are inclined to identify him with the Washington status quo.”
The only way to overcome the negative perception, Baldassare said, would be through an expensive media campaign.
So far, Dole has spent little time or money in California.
Republican activists fear that Dole’s cash-strapped campaign will concede the state to Clinton and devote resources to other states, where the Republican has a better chance.