Aiming to show concern about California's energy crisis -- and address worries about his absence here -- President Bush will travel to the state this month, sources said yesterday.
Bush's trip to Southern California over two days tentatively includes a policy speech on international affairs and events related to the state's power crisis.
"California is important to him and remains so," a high-level Bush adviser said of the trip. "Any thought that he doesn't care is totally misguided."
The president's trip -- his first to California since a week before the November election -- comes after media reports that Republicans are nervous about the effects of the energy issue on their prospects in the 2002 congressional election.
It follows sharp Democratic criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney's comments this week that California's energy crisis resulted from the state "relying only on conservation."
Although Bush hasn't visited California since October, he has twice sent Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham here, most recently last week to meet with state officials. His top political aide, Karl Rove, has made visits and kept in close contact with GOP leaders in the state. Rove told the New York Times a month ago that the president would not visit California until "later in the year."
State Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, who was recently invited to the White House, said he's received assurances from Bush about his intention to visit.
"We've asked him to come out, and he's going to come out," Maldonado said last week.
Still, with the state beleaguered by the prolonged power crisis and increasing fuel costs, Republicans noted that every day of Bush's absence served to hand Democratic Gov. Gray Davis an opportunity to shift blame to Washington.
Yesterday, GOP strategist Dan Schnur lauded the Bush-Cheney energy strategy as "absolutely right," but added "it's awfully tough to sell any message, no matter how strong, from 3,000 miles away."
The president's failure to travel to California has so far represented "a missed opportunity to make up some significant political ground," Schnur said. "There are an awful lot of Gore voters out here whose minds could easily be changed by a president who showed them why he had a better solution than Gray Davis."
Democrats, meanwhile, have played up his absence as evidence of Bush's ties to big oil companies -- and of his disinterest in California. They have maintained Bush has put the state at arms' length because California gave Democrat Al Gore a 1.3 million-vote victory in the presidential contest.
"He will eventually be out here, and when he does, we'll take him off the milk carton," said state Democratic Party campaign adviser Bob Mulholland.
Mulholland said Bush "won't get a good reception" when he visits the state because the administration hasn't done enough to help California in the energy crisis.
But some well-connected Republicans counter that Bush's absence here -- and GOP's nervousness about it -- have been seriously overplayed by the media.
"It's not like (Republican activists) are mad he hasn't been out here," GOP fund-raiser Kristin Hueter said yesterday. "They understand how this works, and what his agenda is."
"Republicans are genuinely very happy with the job he's doing," she continued. "They genuinely understand . . . he's gone to those states where there are (swing votes).
"They know he's not writing off California."
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