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Gore and Bush Are Leading California as Primary Nears

By Cathleen Decker
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- On the final weekend before the presidential campaign’s single biggest primary day, the candidates were galloping around the country in search of votes. But in California, they might as well have been running in place.

George W. Bush and Al Gore, their parties’ establishment princes, continued to hold firm leads within their own ranks against challengers John McCain and Bill Bradley, whose campaigns were characterized in California more by lost opportunities than success.

Republican analyst Tony Quinn, echoing the comments of others, said McCain got off-track, losing his reformist message in the back-and-forth with the Texas governor about the religious right and campaign tactics.

McCain and his camp “got themselves off-message,” Quinn said. “I thought he would have had much more traction here (in California).”

The race for California’s 367 Democratic delegates, meanwhile, never got off the ground. Analysts had long seen evidence of weakness in support for the vice president, but his rival never came up with the themes to win over teetering Democrats.

“Bradley had his moment, but in the final analysis, he was not able to articulate a reason for the Democrats to abandon the nominee,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic consultant.

All told, the primary campaigns have underscored a basic truth about California politics: Despite all the national nattering about the state’s quirky image, it is immensely difficult for underdogs to mount a successful campaign. The place is too big, too expensive and too distracted from politics to allow most insurgent campaigns to succeed.

“California is obviously a huge nut to crack when you are the underdog campaign, the underfinanced campaign,” Sragow said. “It’s pretty hard to make something happen in California unless you focus entirely on the state.”

That, of course, was not possible. Since Bradley was defeated by Gore in New Hampshire one month ago, the former New Jersey senator has traveled from coast to coast, trying to build momentum somewhere. A Los Angeles Times poll published last week showed him behind Gore by a 5-1 margin among California Democrats.

For the Republicans, California has taken a back seat to hand-to-hand combat in a succession of states following McCain’s big win in New Hampshire -- South Carolina, where Bush triumphed; Michigan, where McCain upended Bush; and Washington, where Bush cut off McCain’s momentum for a second time.

The Times poll found Bush with a comfortable lead among California’s Republican voters, 47 percent to McCain’s 26 percent, and even McCain aides have stopped suggesting that he could win the 162 delegates at stake Tuesday.

McCain senior adviser Ken Khachigian admitted that the campaign suffered last week, when it was embroiled in controversies over McCain attacks on leaders of the religious right and on his refusal to attend a Los Angeles debate with Bush and a third GOP candidate, Alacans.

“Governor Bush was here first,” said California state Sen. Jim Brulte, the leader of Bush’s forces in the state. “He was here first, with the most, and he closed a lot of the sale before John McCain even hit anybody’s radar screen.”