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Experts Share Views on California Primary

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted March 1, 2000

Though John McCain paints himself as an anti-establishment candidate, a strategy that has brought him surprising victories in recent primaries, nothing could be further from the truth, says Susan Rasky, professor of journalism.

"McCain billing himself as an outsider is ridiculous and annoying," she said. "He's been in Washington as a representative and senator for over 15 years. How can he be an outsider?"

McCain often derides the government as corrupt and evil during his campaign speeches to bolster his insurgent status, said Rasky. But this vitriol is dangerous because it makes voters cynical and disrespectful of the political process and the institution of government, she said. "People hear this enough, and they start believing it."

However, McCain's reformist message may start to change here in California, in preparation for the state's March 7 primary, says Rasky. Instead of attracting Independents and Democrats -- which helped him win the popular vote in other states -- McCain must get Republican votes in order to win California delegates.

"McCain must start acting like Bush and Bush must start acting like McCain," said Rasky. "California is a little more liberal, so Bush must show his compassionate side and McCain must attract hard-line Republicans to secure their vote."

Even if Bush does win the delegates, he could be badly embarrassed if Democrats and Independents help McCain win the popular vote .

"Many experts discount the theory that voters cross party lines to affect the outcome of a primary election, since party loyalists tend to be the ones who show up to vote," said Political Science Professor Eric Schickler. "But McCain's appeal to Democrats and Independents is unusual and in a tight race with Bush, he could swing the popular vote."

"There are 14 million voters in the state registered as Independents or 'decline to state,'" said Rasky. "These numbers could help McCain if the turnout is good on March 7. And people turnout when they feel their vote can make a difference."

The key to winning votes in California, says Rasky, is the same for all candidates -- media blitzing. Because the state is so large, personal appearances, a staple of McCain's and Bradley's cash-poor campaigns, just won't cut it, she said.

"You can't depend on free media here, though McCain has done a good job with this," she said. "Commercials are how you campaign in California, you must get on TV and radio to reach people."

Voters can expect those ads to get nasty, says professor of political science Bruce Cain, despite the candidates' promises to stay issue oriented.

"Negative ads will appear on both sides," he said. "Negative ads work. In our contemporary culture, they are perceived as more credible than positive ones."

While Rasky and Cain say California voters want to hear about education and healthcare, Political Science Professor Ray Wolfinger says gun control and abortion rights are the hotter topics. Gay issues may even come into play, he said.

"Given the current inclination to favor Proposition 22 (an initiative that seeks to prevent the recognition of same-sex marriage)," said Wolfinger, "Bush may be tempted to ride its popularity during his campaign here."

Another interesting question, says Rasky, is whether Republican candidates will make strong efforts to woo the state's Latino and minority vote. Pete Wilson and his anti-immigration policies left a bad taste with many of the state's Latinos, she said, moving them to vote for Democrats in recent elections.

"Bush comes in with a record that is good in his own state," Rasky said. "If Republicans can win that constituency back, it will boost Bush's chances and change the whole dynamic of elections in the future."

While several Asian groups took exception to McCain's use of the word "Gook" to describe his captors during the Vietnam war, Rasky said it will probably not affect his campaign, partly because of his good relationship with the press.

"The press know he is not a bigot and feel his explanation for using the term is plausible," she said. "They have given him a break on this one."


March 1-7, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 23)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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