Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Arnold Schwarzenegger put the recall on the map. Or was it Rep. Darrell Issa? He rescued the smoke-and-mirrors recall from oblivion. His $2 million bought the needed petition signatures. Sure, Gov. Gray Davis was immensely unpopular. But, contrary to the initial hype of recall hucksters, getting 900,000 net signatures took money.

Last week, Mr. Issa predictably entered the county registrar’s office to file his candidacy papers. He emerged before reporters, ready to announce his candidacy. Then, suddenly, tearfully, inexplicably, he withdrew from the race.

While Mr. Issa’s prospects for victory were uncertain, it seemed inconceivable that he would withdraw. In contrast, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, popular U.S. senator, or Republican Dick Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor, could have won this election without a campaign. Both took a pass.

And now, it seems Mr. Schwarzenegger’s to lose.

But a lot can change between now and the Oct. 7th election.

For one thing, a federal court could postpone the special recall election until Nov. 4. Or, perhaps, to coincide with the California presidential primary — March 4. But federal action, increasingly unlikely, would have to happen almost immediately.

The more likely outcome is that in less than eight weeks, California voters will determine whether Mr. Davis is recalled. And if so, who takes his place.

Here’s the way it looks right now.

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s dramatic announcement captured worldwide press. The softball coverage spun nicely for him. Also, the media kept telling voters just how unpopular Mr. Davis is.

Within a few days, the 5-to-4 bare majority for the recall expanded. Now, we’re seeing an overwhelming 2-to-1 repudiation of Mr. Davis. More tellingly, these recall ballot numbers hold among high, medium and low propensity voters. In other words, if the election were today, Mr. Davis would be history, regardless of who turns out.

What could change all this?

The Democrats have a lame campaign. Their “unity” candidate is the state’s No. 2 officeholder, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. His disingenuous theme urges voters to (A) reject the recall, and then (B) vote for him. It’s more than a confusing message. Does anyone really think Mr. Bustamante wants the recall to lose, if he could win?

That Mr. Bustamante is the last hope of the Democrats says something about his party. Bustamante’s campaign is run by a lobbyist under scrutiny for conflict of interest. Mr. Bustamante in a public speech once used the pejorative N word to describe African Americans. When the crowd gasped, he caught himself, then wondered aloud how he could have said such a thing. He apologized deeply and sincerely, but some in the audience refused to accept his apology. They saw the word as a Freudian slip.

The point is not that Mr. Bustamante is indecent. Although a Republican probably would not have received the benefit of the doubt. But why would voters replace Mr. Davis with Mr. Bustamante? Indeed, if the recall numbers persist, Mr. Bustamante is unelectable unless he repudiates Mr. Davis. Even then, he might be seen simply as more opportunist.

The recall and Mr. Schwarzenegger are bound. Mr. Davis cannot defeat the recall without a frontal assault on its frontrunner. Yet, Mr. Davis then would risk a backlash against his conventional smut campaigning. Speaking of smut, Mr. Davis can only hope that candidate Larry Flynt, Hustler magazine publisher, spends a few million in campaign ads. It’s good for Mr. Flynt’s business, but bad for the recall. It would get Mr. Flynt 10 percent in the polls, and help make the recall the kind of circus Mr. Davis wants.

For Mr. Davis to succeed, he needs help from Mr. Schwarzenegger’s opponents. They must attack the superstar. And the news media must overcompensate for its initial kid-glove treatment of Mr. Schwarzenegger. Most of all, Mr. Davis also needs major blunders by the one-time Mr. Universe.

Republican Tom McClintock remains quintessentially impressive, but underfunded. Republican Bill Simon competes for Republican core voters. Former Olympics czar Peter Ueberroth is ready to pick up the pieces if Mr. Schwarzenegger self-destructs. And, for the time being, Mr. Schwarzenegger has lifted independent Arianna Huffington’s issues of challenging Sacramento special interests. Will she let him do this?

But the Terminator has an experienced campaign team. Consider how it deflected two controversies days ago. In 1994, voters had passed Proposition 187 to limit services to illegal immigrants. When controversy erupted over how Mr. Schwarzenegger voted on Proposition 187, his campaign immediately confirmed he voted for the measure. His stance probably helps solidify the Republican base. When questions arose about Mr. Schwarzenegger’s tax returns, the campaign provided them to reporters. That contrasted with how Mr. Simon in last year’s campaign against Mr. Davis was forced into disclosure.

Clearly, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s advisers realize his credibility is key to victory.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist.

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