- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

A political earthquake is shaking the ground in California. Its tremors could extend across the nation, influencing next year’s presidential election, and changing the national debate about government spending.

Backers of a campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis say they have collected 800,000 of the 897,158 signatures on petitions required to force a recall election. If they collect the requisite number of valid signatures by July 18, California law requires there be a recall election in October or November. (Mr. Davis’ opponents have until September to gather the signatures, but that would put off a recall election to next January or February.)

If there is a recall election, the odds are Mr. Davis will lose it. A recent poll indicated 51 percent of Californians support the recall effort, a number likely to grow if it actually qualifies for the ballot.

Mr. Davis is the nation’s most unpopular governor. Three recent opinion polls put his approval rating at below 30 percent. Californians think Mr. Davis misled them both about the extent of California’s fiscal crisis, and about how he intends to deal with it.

California has a $38 billion budget deficit. Mr. Davis plans to solve it by borrowing as much money as he can; by raising existing taxes a lot; by creating new taxes, and by expanding the authority of local governments to raise their own taxes. This has won him the staunch support of public-employee unions, because any other governor — even if he or she is a Democrat — is likely to look more seriously at the option of cutting government spending.

California is arguably the most Democratic state in the nation. Al Gore beat President Bush here, 54 percent to 42 percent. So California’s next governor ought to be a Democrat. Should Sen. Dianne Feinstein (approval rating 62 percent) choose to run, she would be a strong favorite.

But Mrs. Feinstein and other Democratic heavyweights have a problem. A recall election is two elections in one. Voters vote first on whether to recall Mr. Davis. Then they vote on his replacement. The victor is whoever gets the most votes. Depending on how many candidates there are — and who they are — the next governor of California could be elected with less than a quarter of the popular vote.

The dilemma for Democrats is that they cannot run without undercutting Mr. Davis. State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Attorney General Bill Lockyer have said they won’t run. Feinstein adviser Bill Carrick said he did not think she would run.

Republicans are under no such constraints. Rep. Darrell Issa, whose contributions have fueled the recall campaign, is certain to run. Bill Simon, who despite running the most feckless campaign in modern political history, came within 5 points of beating Mr. Davis last fall, is another likely candidate. But the favorite — should Mrs. Feinstein chose not to run — is actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Terminator has name identification it would take other candidates millions of dollars to buy. He has no record for the famous Davis attack machine to pick apart. Since Californians are disgusted with the entire political establishment, being an outsider is an advantage. As a moderate on social issues (he supports gay rights and abortion in most circumstances), Mr. Schwarzenegger can focus on fiscal mismanagement without making liberal Calfornians’ teeth grind. And the last actor to run for governor of California (Ronald Reagan) did rather well.

It isn’t only California Democrats who lose if there is a recall election. It would be the Political Event of the fall, sucking such oxygen from the Democratic presidential contenders as remains after Hillary’s book tour.

Mr. Davis will raise a ton of money to fight for his job. Other Democratic contenders will be soliciting funds, too, emptying wallets that might otherwise open for those seeking to oust Mr. Bush.

And if Mr. Schwarzenegger wins, his inauguration would take place about the time the Democratic presidential primaries begin, diverting attention from them.

A Republican governor. Empty Democratic campaign treasuries. A diminished Democratic presidential field. Mr. Lockyer called the recall effort “a profound threat to democracy.” That’s hyperbole. But the recall could be a profound threat to Democrats.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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