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Posted at 10:36 p.m. PDT Saturday, September 23, 2000

Bush, Gore whiz through California

The golden state offers a gold mine of campaign donations and photo opportunities

Mercury News

By day, the presidential candidates empathize with California seniors who can't afford prescription drugs or working families struggling to make ends meet in some of the state's grittier neighborhoods.

But by night, they court rich contributors who nibble mini-beef carpaccio crostini in swank hotels or hillside homes while the Eagles or Elton John entertain.

Welcome to the 2000 presidential campaign, California-style.

California is as much about money as votes: Since March, Gore has held a steady lead, causing the candidates to treat the state as a political ATM rather than a battleground of campaign ideas. They plan their trips around million-dollar fundraisers, slipping in a few public stops and rallies largely devoid of any significant announcements.

Entering the home stretch of their contest, the two presidential nominees spent about 48 hours each in the state in the past two weeks, mostly delivering rehearsed political lines and flexing their fundraising muscle.

Bush arrives in Silicon Valley on Monday night, and on Tuesday will hold an education event before a fundraising lunch at the home of Carol Bartz, CEO of the design-software firm Autodesk. But after that, neither presidential candidate is expected to spend much more time campaigning in the state.

In the past two weeks, the two candidates have raised nearly $9 million.

Bush was the busier, holding five public events and three fundraisers, compared to Gore's two public events and two fundraisers.

Tightly controlled events During these visits, each campaign organized tightly controlled, made-for-television events filled mostly with supporters or people whose experiences were meant to illustrate the candidate's ``talking points.''

And for that, California is a gold mine.

Bush posed with Orange County Vietnamese-Americans in native dress while supporters waved signs reading ``Mot Ngay Moi'' -- ``A brand new day'' -- and later with decorated veterans in San Diego.

Gore was photographed with turban-wearing Silicon Valley Sikhs and Latino patrons of a Mexican deli in San Fernando Valley, where the candidate disclosed he likes his salsa ``hot,'' even if ``it makes me sweat.''

Gore avoided most questions shouted by reporters over the deli counter, and then the motorcade whisked him off to tape a short segment on ``The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.''

Only Bush dared to tread into completely unscripted territory, taking a half-hour of questions from high school students, who ended up overshadowing his message of educational accountability by insisting on hearing his position on sex education.

``So,'' one 17-year-old student pressed the GOP nominee, ``it's wrong to have sex?''

Reporters scribbled. The Republican presidential nominee winced.

``I didn't say that. I think children ought to understand the consequences,'' Bush responded, carefully articulating his position that abstinence should be part of sex ed.

Fundraisers hidden from view The campaigns work overtime to ensure coverage of their public events, but their high-dollar fundraisers are largely hidden from view. On their recent trips, both campaigns banned television cameras at fundraisers held in private homes.

Gore raised $4.2 million at grocery magnate Ron Burkle's Beverly Hills estate, known as Green Acres, which includes a carousel and a dog house with glass windows.

There is no television clip of Seinfeld producer Larry David making fun of Bush for turning to religion. ``Like Bush, I, too, found Christ in my 40s,'' David said.

``He came into my room one night. And I said, `What, no call? You just pop in?' ''

Nor will television viewers see how Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman, who publicly call for sanctions if entertainment companies continue marketing violent and obscene products to children, softened their stance before the crowd, which included Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Garry Shandling and Judith Krantz.

Promised Lieberman: ``We will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will nudge you, but we will never become censors.''

Former ``L.A. Law'' star Harry Hamlin, who joined Gore on the campaign trail the next day, came to the vice president's defense when asked if he thought the Democrat's criticism of the entertainment industry was fair.

Absolutely, said Hamlin, in one of the odder campaign moments. He complained that many Disney films are ``too violent'' for his 2-year-old child. While she was six months pregnant with the same child, Hamlin's wife, actress Lisa Rinna, appeared nude in Playboy.

On the campaign trail in Orange County's Little Saigon, Bush lashed out at opponents who claim the Bush campaign is ``only for the rich.''

Then he headed off to two exclusive fundraisers in Irvine and Newport Beach.

At the Atherton home of Novell CEO Eric Schmidt, Gore condemned Bush's tax-cut plan as a bone to the wealthy, then complimented some of the richest men in America, who sat in the audience, for being ``public-spirited enough to know that that's not good for you, either.''

Only Bush met with reporters during his California swing. He explained his public campaigning in the state has been designed to change his party's image.

``Our party has gotten labeled as anti-education, for example, anti-immigrant,'' he said, repeating a theme he has raised on most California visits. ``Hopefully, my trips here have helped change that. I've spent a lot of time in places where Republicans normally don't go.''

Derisive sing-along Gore, by comparison, granted only a few quick interviews to television networks as he was about to leave the state. During the time California reporters flew aboard Air Force Two, Gore didn't leave his private cabin to talk to them. Instead, a senior aide sought to divert attention from the candidate's inaccessibility by leading the media in a sing-along deriding the Bush campaign.

Most of the journalists joined in.

On his way back to Washington, D.C., Gore told reporters that he likes ``having open meetings'' and talking ``to people on the street.''

But, as Bush's experience showed, hitting the streets can be risky.

Dropping in at Watson's Drug Store in the city of Orange, a women in a neck brace first tried to engage Bush by describing her medical condition and her inability to get compensation. Then she wanted to know if a magazine article suggesting Bush is dyslexic was true.

``Complete fiction,'' Bush responded.

Salvaging what was meant to be an innocuous photo op, the candidate slipped behind the counter. Flipping a burger, he asked, ``You want the classic grill shot?''

Contact Mary Anne Ostrom at mostrom@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5574.

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