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On a cloudless Sept. 13 afternoon in Little Saigon, a lanky middle-aged white woman stood nervously on a Bolsa Avenue sidewalk. She chewed gum open-mouthed, smiled a lot, and wore tight, purple, calf-high polyester pants. A hot-pink shirt accentuated her hefty bosom. Her left hand gripped an oversize blue-and-gold umbrella that protected her bottle-blond bouffant and heavily made-up, anorexic face from lethal sun rays. Noisy passing traffic blew unmerciful heat at her legs. Occasionally, the woman frowned, wiped away perspiration from her forehead, and then quickly resumed the smile. She was not leaving until the right man stopped and solicited her.
That man, of course, would be a tardy Texan named George. The Bush campaign had scheduled a 3 p.m. rally at the skillet-hot parking lot of the Asian Garden Mall and was, at that point, an acceptable 30 minutes late. The mostly Vietnamese-American crowd appeared subdued by the delay and heat. Someone yelled, "Let's get the show on the road. It's hot out here."
But not this woman. She had worked herself into a frenzy of anticipation. When self-important security officers finally opened the iron barricades, the woman burst through first, sprinted to the empty stage on white high heels, thrust her umbrella piston-like toward the sky, and screamed triumphantly, "Ahhhhhhhhh." It was impossible to determine which Asian-American face looked more frightened.
They were all greeted by Tom Fuentes, who has for 15 years served as don of the local Republican Party. It was Fuentes' task to occupy the crowd until his party's presidential nominee arrived.
"Welcome to America's most Republican county," a beaming, red-faced Fuentes shouted as if he were auditioning to be a game-show MC. A small percentage of the crowd enthusiastically waved mass-produced "Bush-Cheney" placards.
Fuentes handed the microphone to party vice chairwoman Jo Ellen Allen, who managed to plant thinly veiled partisanship in a long-winded prayer to "our gracious God." Matt Fong followed. The Republicans' unsuccessful 1998 U.S. Senate candidate for California recited the Pledge of Allegiance before offering his logic for a Bush administration: "We're going to send George W. Bush to the White House because George Bush and Dick Cheney know something about the military."
Along with prayers and pledges, Republican gatherings in Orange County can't seem to avoid homosexuality. Former cop and first-term state Assemblyman Ken Maddox drew wild cheers for reminding the crowd of Bill Clinton's ties to the gay community. "With George Bush as president, the Boy Scouts will be safe in America again," the pubescent-looking Maddox squealed. "This is Bush country!"
Lou Lopez, a right-wing retired Anaheim cop challenging Democrat Lou Correa in the 69th Assembly District, quickly made the audience forget Maddox's homophobia. "Isn't it great to be a Republican?" said Lopez. "We are going to take back the 69th if I can just get Lou Correa in my gun sights." Secret Service agents standing near the stage didn't seem amused; some onlookers gasped. Lopez hastily added, "Ha-ha. I'm just joking." He then tried to rally the crowd with a chant of "Viva Bush!"
Except for Clinton, few Democrats evoke more disgust in local GOP circles than Loretta Sanchez, Orange County's lone Democratic representative in Congress. Fuentes tried to ridicule the congresswoman's controversial plan for a Playboy Mansion fund-raiser during the Democratic convention by calling her "Bunny Sanchez." The quip apparently excited Sanchez's Republican challenger, Gloria Matta Tuchman. As Tuchman walked to the microphone, she tripped. A quick-acting Fuentes grabbed her arm and saved her from immortality on a bloopers tape.
"I'm just so excited and delighted to be a candidate," said an out-of-breath Tuchman. Her excitement wasn't shared by everyone. Apparently overcome by heat and not political passion, a woman fainted and was rushed to the hospital. On the other side of the crowd, a man angrily yelled, "Where the hell is Bush?"
The answer? Still another 45 minutes away.
As if the heat and delay weren't torture enough, Fuentes introduced what sounded like a geographically defined STD: the "Orange County One Clap." It went like this: the party chief mentioned a local Republican politician's name, and the crowd clapped arrhythmically a single time. More than two dozen claps later, a Vietnamese-American college student rolled his eyes and said, "Man, this really sucks."
It got worse. Fuentes introduced a fat guy in a straw hat as "the best Republican volunteer." He led a cheer, too: "Give me a B!" he cried. The reaction was, to be kind, lukewarm. "Give me a B!" he tried again. More out of sympathy than enthusiasm, the crowd eventually participated.
When the man finished spelling B-U-S-H, George W. Bush was still nowhere on the horizon. Fuentes checked his watch. Perhaps he was calculating how much more awful this all might become. He sauntered over to the microphone. "Come on. You can do better than that," he said. Before it was over, the best Republican volunteer in Orange County had switched to an even more elementary chant: "Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush." The refrain caught the attention of the high school males present. "Yeah, I want bush," one of them said. "Lots of it."
At almost 5 p.m., a jacketless Bush jumped on the stage and began his 16-minute speech. But perhaps "speech" is no longer the right word. In contemporary American politics, the candidate's job is to show up in as many different media markets as possible, on a set provided by the local party, with hundreds of supporters in attendance. The "speech" isn't actually a speech so much as a string of head-spinningly disconnected sound bites, delivered for the benefit of harried news editors with 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcast deadlines.