In the campaign of George W. Bush, images and symbols matter, and the portrait painted by Republicans in recent California elections was one of intolerance and mean-spiritedness.

Robert J. Dole toured the death chamber at San Quentin. Gov. Pete Wilson's anti-immigration commercial showing streams of Mexicans crossing the border warned: "They just keep coming." Even Bush's father, in his 1992 reelection campaign, abandoned the most populous state in the nation, the Texas governor concedes.

But declaring himself a "different kind of Republican," the second Bush to run for president predicted today that he will win California and its 54 electoral votes, largely by marketing a new montage of images.

As if to prove his point, Bush's swing through Southern California this week was heavy on style, if not always substance. In 43 hours, Bush was captured on film strolling out of Mass at the San Juan Capistrano mission and wolfing down a taco at Fiesta Imperiale in heavily Hispanic Santa Ana. He compared favorite books with youngsters in Mission Viejo, and today he celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a flourish of Spanish and tales of "my new friend" Jose, the taqueria proprietor.

"I'm so confident that our views of the world, that our conservative philosophy, will have compassionate results, that I will take my campaign maybe in neighborhoods that other candidates in my party dared not tread," he said today.

The last GOP presidential candidate to win this state was Vice President George Bush in 1988. Democrats now control most of the top state offices, as well as both Senate seats. Polls have consistently put Vice President Gore ahead here, and President Clinton remains popular.

Still, Bush persists in what is either a stubborn determination to beat the odds or an early political head-fake. The Bush team has kept an office open in Los Angeles and plans to have its candidate visit California at least 10 times in the first half of 2000, said Gerry Parsky, Bush's state chairman. One campaign aide works full time coordinating Bush coverage in the Spanish-language press.

Gore's allies dismiss the Bush talk as bluster. They argue that the Texas governor's support for guns, opposition to abortion and mixed environmental record put him at odds with a majority of Californians. "I don't see Bush having any--repeat any--realistic chance here," said pollster Paul Maslin, a top adviser to Gov. Gray Davis (D).

And Bob Mulholland, an adviser to the California Democratic Party, ridiculed Bush's Hispanic outreach. "Hiring a mariachi band for a rally of the Orange County faithful . . . is not reaching out to California Latinos," he said, noting that 78 percent of Latinos voted for Davis in the last election.

Mark Baldassare, a pollster at the Public Policy Institute of California, said Bush probably has a better chance targeting suburbanites and independents, who have drifted away from the GOP in this state. "It will be very hard for any Republican to draw a large share of the Hispanic vote because more than 60 percent of Latinos are Democratic," he said.

Bush, spouting a detailed understanding of California's political crosscurrents, acknowledged he must broaden his reach to win the state. He hopes to put together a winning coalition with better margins from the agricultural sector, Silicon Valley, veterans and the disenchanted GOP base in areas such as Orange County.

His pitch to Latino voters revolves around his role as governor of Texas, a job that has made him a prominent supporter of free trade and of food stamps for legal immigrants. "I've got a record to run on," he said. "As governor of Texas I told our state we weren't going to bash immigrants." He said he "rejected the spirit of Prop. 187," the California anti-immigration initiative. "I fought off the English-only" advocates.

"I'm certainly going to send a message new Americans are welcome as far as this Republican's concerned," he said when asked how he differs from his GOP predecessors.

Bush focused his message today on the virtues of education, entrepreneurship, faith and family--all themes that fit today's Cinco de Mayo celebration. "We have a lot in common," he told a breakfast crowd sprinkled with Hispanics. And when he learned that Gore often jokes to Hispanic audiences that he hopes his second grandchild will be born on Cinco de Mayo, Bush whispered to an aide: "Completely pathetic."

But Bush could not escape the issue of guns. First, Clinton told reporters in Washington that the National Rifle Association (NRA) would have "unprecedented influence" at the White House if Bush wins the presidency. Questioned about a videotape of an NRA official bragging about the group's closeness to Bush, Clinton said, "I do believe that it's clear from the record of Governor Bush in Texas and from the statements and from the increased visibility of the role of the NRA in the Republican National Committee that whatever is done on this issue will only be done with their approval."

Then it was Gore's turn. He said that as president he would veto legislation shielding gunmakers from lawsuits by municipalities, and he challenged Bush to say what he would do. Bush signed such a measure as governor last year. "The country needs to know where George W. Bush stands," Gore said in an interview with The New York Times/abcnews.com Webcast while campaigning in Michigan.

Questioned about that at his news conference, Bush declined to directly answer, saying the question was hypothetical. But he added, "You can get a feel for my position by looking what I have done in office, and what I did in office was sign a bill that made it difficult for municipalities to sue manufacturers of a legal product."

Bush also was pressed on his charge that Gore has been a member of the NRA. Lacking evidence to back up his accusation, Bush seized upon the Gore campaign's equally fuzzy defense that it was possible the vice president once "inadvertently" joined the organization. "Only he can tell us whether or not he has ever been a member," Bush said. "He might have been a member; let's put it that way," Bush continued. Then, when asked who gave him that impression, he replied: "A little birdie."