WASHINGTON – Presidential candidate George W. Bush prided himself on visiting California at least once a month in the heat of last year’s campaign. As president he has waited more than four months to visit the largest state.
Bush lost California decisively in November, and it remains hostile territory. When he returns to the Democratic stronghold Monday night, he will face protests, negative TV and radio ads, polls questioning his leadership, and an electricity crisis for which his energy strategy offers little relief.
He will meet Tuesday with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who has relentlessly attacked him for not capping wholesale power prices — and will almost certainly resume doing so when Bush again refuses.
Bush is seeking to highlight his engagement in the energy issue at a time when most Californians disapprove of his approach.
A Field Poll released last week showed 54 percent of Californians rated Bush’s handling of the state’s energy situation as poor or very poor; 38 percent viewed Davis that way.
“He could go a long way toward diminishing the hostility in California toward his administration on the energy issue,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
“But that requires he do something other than schmooze people,” Cain said. “There’s got to be some sort of special action on the part of the government.” Specifically, he must grant the price caps, he said.
Vice President Dick Cheney again rejected such limits on Friday. “We think that’s a mistake,” he said.
As it happens, Bush’s Tuesday appearances coincide with the start of limited new price caps in California. The independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission capped wholesale prices when electricity reserves fall below 7.5 percent in the state — a step Davis called inadequate, and Bush opposed.
Bush will emphasize other means of addressing the crisis, visiting the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, on Tuesday to remind listeners of his order that military facilities in the state cut peak-hour usage by one-tenth.
After delivering a trade speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Bush will host a roundtable of business leaders and entrepreneurs. On the agenda will be high-tech answers to the energy problem, such as electronic meters that help consumers and businesses track their power consumption.
The meeting with Davis carries considerable risks for Bush, but Bush advisers said they concluded that drawing criticism from Davis would be less damaging than refusing to meet altogether.
The meeting also helps Bush bolster his bipartisan image, which was tarnished by the defection from the GOP of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.
White House aides scrambled last week to avert a scenario in which Davis is left to level fresh, unanswered assaults on Bush after the meeting.
“He could become a foil for Davis, and Davis needs it,” said Samuel Kernell, a scholar on the presidency at the University of California, San Diego.
Countering Davis is particularly urgent because the Bush administration views Davis as a potential White House contender in 2004.
Wednesday, Bush looks to underline his commitment to the environment with a trip to Sequoia National Park, home to some of the world’s largest trees.
He’ll point to his plan to spend the full amount of money that Congress authorizes for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1965 to buy federal and state lands with revenues from offshore oil and gas production in federal waters.
Congress has rarely appropriated the full $900 million authorized for it annually since 1978. Just $90.3 million was appropriated in 2001 for state grants.
President Clinton had visited California twice by this point in his presidency, but his broader strategy mirrored Bush’s: He was shoring up critical base states, just as Bush has done with early visits to states he won last year. Bush has visited 28 states, most of which he carried in November.
Clinton won California twice; Bush lost it by 12 points last year to Al Gore.