Saturday, October 21, 2006

"Showdown State"

Riverside Press Enterprise (CA):

Tucked away in a sparsely furnished downtown Riverside office, next to a dimly lit cigar bar and a bustling nightspot, the state Republican Party ground troops are massing.

They dial from morning to night in a bright white room, phoning voters most likely to help the cause. They want volunteers and people willing to spread the party's message or simply to take the time to vote.

Their mission: get Republicans elected Nov. 7 to top state offices such as lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

If party officials can get the 647,618 Inland Republicans and some of the region's Republican-leaning independents to the polls, they hope to chip away at the Democratic dominance in the state.

Democrats hold a strong voter-registration advantage in California: 6.7 million Democrats vs. 5.4 million Republicans.

Democrats call that wishful thinking, describing the GOP's campaign techniques as no match for the Democrats' more-established statewide operations and edge in voter registration.

Additionally, California Republicans could get hurt in a growing national backlash against congressional Republicans. There's growing voter opposition to the war in Iraq and concern about the sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and congressional pages.

"I think it's good talk, you know, but the wave of Democrats wanting to oust Republicans and have new leadership is fast and coming," said Sam Rodriguez, political director for the California Democratic Party.

The party is teaming up with Inland Democratic clubs to get the region's Democrats out to the polls. Instead of focusing on the state's top offices, though, Democrats here are focusing much of their attention on two local races centered in the Coachella Valley.

To overcome the odds, the state GOP has taken a page from President Bush's 2004 campaign playbook. Workers are "micro-targeting" the Republican and independent voters who have delivered for the party in the past. The party uses databases of voters names, combined with other key information, to tailor its message and reach out to those most likely to respond.

"This is the largest effort California has ever seen for a state campaign," Angel Sanchez Jr., a Riverside County Republican, said on a recent night at the downtown Riverside office as volunteers dialed nearby. "You want to turn out the base."

Inland Important

The GOP campaign, known as "Victory '06," has three offices in Riverside County and two in San Bernardino County. Some volunteers are walking in neighborhoods on the weekends, trying to get voters out to the polls or to mail in their absentee ballots.

In the past, the party has run a couple of campaign offices in San Bernardino County and one full-time and one part-time in Riverside County, said Hector Barajas, state GOP press secretary.

This year's operation is bigger, started early in the summer and has 40 phone lines in each calling center, which is about eight times the number of lines the party traditionally used in centers, he said.
Acquanetta Warren, a Fontana city councilwoman and the Inland area's representative on the state GOP board of directors, said she has been talking to voters about the campaign and trying to get more San Bernardino County residents involved. She speaks to them about regional problems such as clogged freeways and crime and tells them about Republican Party plans to address those issues.

"I think Victory '06 says one thing: The status quo is unacceptable," she said. "We have an opportunity to really show that we are the largest county (geographically) in the United States and why."

The Victory '06 campaign is averaging 250,000 calls a week statewide and has 52,000 volunteers statewide, Barajas said. He said he was unable to release numbers specific to the region or reveal how many votes the party hopes to get from here, but described Riverside and San Bernardino counties as among the party's most important areas.

With a majority registration in both counties and a history of victories in the Inland area, Republicans are working hard to get out Inland voters, analysts and politicians say.

"If you're a Republican, you go hunting where the ducks are. Riverside, San Bernardino counties are full of ducks," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Despite the high number of Republicans in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, many of them did not turn out to vote in November 2005 when Gov. Schwarzenegger called a special election. Even fewer turned out in June for the primary election.

Turnout in San Bernardino County was 24.8 percent of registered voters -- the lowest in the state -- and in Riverside County, it was 26.75 percent. Statewide, 33.63 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Republicans believe they can turn that tide this election, and Schwarzenegger started meeting with Inland supporters shortly after the June primary to get them motivated.

Democratic campaign efforts, on the other hand, tend to focus on Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, Pitney said.

"In California, the Democrats have less money (this year), and so they have to target their resources more carefully," he said. "They're going where the ducks are, too, but their ducks are in different places."

Democratic Targets

Democrats say they actually are devoting resources to the Inland region, with the state Democratic Party and local Democratic clubs teaming up to get voters out to the polls.

They're sharing databases and targeting occasional voters and other supporters through phone calls, e-mails and regular mail.

National Democratic activists, including labor unions and groups such as, have devoted weekends to walking and calling voters in Mary Bono's congressional district.

"I can tell you the hardest-working Democrats are in San Bernardino and Riverside. They are relentless," Rodriguez said. "We haven't seen that level of aggressive activism in a long time."

In San Bernardino County alone, there are 18 political clubs the party is working with to get out the vote, Rodriguez said. He didn't have numbers for Riverside County.

Some of that activism can be seen in two competitive races in the Coachella Valley, where candidates in an Assembly district and a congressional race are mounting expensive campaigns.

David Roth, a La Quinta Democrat, has given Bono, R-Palm Springs, her toughest challenge yet. Roth has the support of politicians and groups both inside and outside the state.

He also recently earned some attention from the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which hopes to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the GOP majority in Congress and gain control of the House this year.

Backers from around Southern California and elsewhere have turned out to help Roth campaign in recent weeks. But he faces an uphill climb in the Republican-dominant district.

In a state Assembly district that also includes much of the Coachella Valley, other California Democrats are working to try to take over a seat held by a Republican. Democrats make up a majority of registered voters in that district, fueling their hopes of ousting Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia.

Steve Clute, a former Democratic member of the Assembly, is going after the seat held by Garcia, R-Cathedral City. The California Democratic Party has poured money into his race for staff, office expenses and other things, but Rodriguez wouldn't reveal details about what else the state party is doing for Clute's campaign.

"That may be on the verge of going our way," Rodriguez said. "Our Democrat in that race is doing all the right things, and the next 20 days are just going to get better for him."

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