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California Power Parley*

California Power Parley
Energy Crisis Shadows Bush's Western Trip
California Gov. Gray Davis talks with reporters after meeting with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in Chicago, May 21, 2001. Davis was briefed on how Chicago handled blackouts when faced with power shortages. (Mike Fisher - AP)
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2001; Page A01

California Gov. Gray Davis (D) plans to use a private meeting with President Bush tomorrow to push for price limits on electricity, but Bush's staff says the president will refuse, posing a political risk for Republicans in the largest state.

After four months of telling California from 2,300 miles away that it needs to solve its own power crisis, Bush will see for himself with a three-day visit that begins tonight. The climax will come Tuesday, at a meeting with Davis that the White House set for 20 minutes.

Davis said during a telephone interview that the federal government "has been AWOL" for California's crisis and that he will urge Bush to find "some creative approach to providing temporary price relief."

"The last time I looked, California was still part of the United States of America," Davis said. "We have contributed disproportionately to the economic growth of this country. There's no reason why a president should not respond to a legitimate request from the chief executive of the largest state in the union."

The state attorney general's office is preparing litigation to be filed if Bush does not agree, a senior California official said.

A top White House official said Bush looks forward to meeting Davis but does not plan to offer new proposals, and has ruled out federally imposed limits on wholesale electricity prices. Karen P. Hughes, counselor to the president, told California reporters during a conference call Friday that would be "exactly the wrong policy to pursue."

"Price caps only make the problem worse because they do not reduce demand and they restrict supply," Hughes said. "That's why he's developed an energy policy that in the long run will reduce prices."

The trip could have long ramifications for Bush's presidency and the Republican Party. Rolling blackouts are expected to increase in California this summer and possibly spread to the Midwest and Northeast. Pollsters in California said voters there have not yet firmly decided whether Bush is part of the problem or part of the solution, but are likely to soon.

A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California gave Bush a 57 percent overall job approval rating but found that 56 percent of respondents disapproved of his handling of the state's power crisis. Davis's overall approval was 46 percent, and 60 percent of respondents disagreed with his actions on electricity.

"This is a critical moment for Bush here in California," said Mark Baldassare, the poll's director. "Over the next few months, people are going to be reassessing blame. This is a time when the president can make friends and make a good impression, or he can appear to be distant and unconcerned."

Bush has visited 28 states, but not California since losing it to Vice President Al Gore by 12 percentage points. Some Republican leaders in the Golden State had begun to feel neglected, so just showing up accomplishes much of his mission. As his father put it so memorably at a 1992 town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H., it's a case of, "Message: I care."

The rest of Bush's job will be harder, because he will have to publicly balance the political temptation to take some step toward temporarily stabilizing electricity rates against a strong philosophical objection to doing so.

The meeting between Bush, 54, and Davis, 58, could be tense. Just on Friday, Vice President Cheney repeated the administration's long-held view that officials in California "knew a year ago they had problems" but "postponed taking action because all of the action was potentially unpleasant."

And Davis, while stating that he did not want to be "too political" in the interview, said: "California is getting soaked. The money is going directly from the pockets of ordinary Californians to the CEOs of major energy companies in Texas and other Southwest states. It's a massive transfer of wealth."

White House officials said they have granted numerous requests by Davis and noted that federal agencies have taken more than a dozen actions to remove obstacles to power generation in California and to minimize blackouts.

In February, Bush issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expedite permits relating to construction of new power plants in California. Early this month, he directed federal agencies in California and other areas with electricity shortages to reduce power use during peak periods. At the same time, he ordered the Defense Department to reduce its California power consumption through a combination of conservation and investments in energy efficiency.

Davis wants Bush to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to limit wholesale electricity rates. The commission has imposed limited caps based on reserve levels, but Davis contends the order has so many loopholes it will benefit a minuscule number of consumers. Democratic legislative leaders in the state tried to add to the pressure on Bush with a lawsuit last week in federal appeals court.

Recognizing that featuring Bush in a hall of power horror stories probably is not wise, administration officials have declined Davis's invitation to meet "some of the business owners and everyday citizens who have been personally affected by this energy crisis." Instead, Bush will meet with a group of business people developing high-tech conservation methods.

Bush will spend tonight in Los Angeles. On Tuesday, he will visit the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton to highlight his order for military facilities to save power. He will speak to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, then will moderate an "Energy Efficiency Technology Roundtable," followed by the meeting with Davis.

On Wednesday, he will speak at Sequoia National Park, which has a maintenance backlog, to launch his national park improvement program. The National Parks Conservation Association, a private group that has condemned his national energy policy as a potential threat to the parks, will greet him with a report card on his park-protection record.

California, whose 33.9 million residents make up 12 percent of the nation, has been something of a no-fly zone for Republicans in the past few years. Davis, then lieutenant governor, won by 20 percentage points in 1998.

Many political analysts said Davis's predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson, a two-term Republican who was barred by law from running again, did long-term damage to his party by championing a proposition restricting services to illegal immigrants and their children. The measure was supported by voters but voided by courts.

Bush defied conventional wisdom last year by visiting California frequently and pouring more than $1 million into television advertisements there, even though the state had long -- and correctly -- been seen as a lock for Gore.

Administration officials said they hope to improve the party's prospects in California by focusing on issues that are important to uncommitted voters, including education, tax cuts, trade and the "welcoming and inclusive tone" that the Republican National Committee is trying to set for the party.

State Sen. James L. Brulte, the chamber's Republican leader, said voters will recognize that "blaming a president who's been in office 124 days for problems that were not of his making may be good politics, but it doesn't solve the problems."

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) said he believes the California energy situation bolsters Bush's argument that more fossil-fuel generation is needed. "Moonbeams just don't generate enough power," Ridge said. "Democrats have been trying to lay this energy crisis on both the federal government and President Bush. He's going to go in there and say, 'I know you didn't create it, but we've got to work together to solve it.' It's a plus-up for him."

Bush aides said they had contemplated a California trip in April, but that possibility was disrupted by China's detention of the crew of a surveillance plane. "We will be back in California as frequently as possible," a top administration official said. "We like playing on the other guy's turf."

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