Sunday, August 24, 2003

California Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante seemed to have a tough task ahead of him a week ago to be elected the next Democratic governor of California.

He had to introduce himself to voters who hardly knew his name and had little idea what he did. He had to distinguish himself from Gov. Gray Davis, a fellow Democrat whose popularity has sunk to an all-time low. And he yearned for attention from a media that is watching a movie star candidate’s every move.

Despite all those obstacles, a Los Angeles Times poll released yesterday confirms that he is now the clear front-runner with 35 percent of likely voters in the Oct. 7 recall election supporting Mr. Bustamante.

Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was second with 22 percent, but until last week, most polls showed him slightly ahead of Mr. Bustamante.

These developments were predicted by Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University at California at Berkeley.

“All things being equal, Cruz Bustamante is the favorite,” Mr. Cain said Friday. “Even if he’s a weak candidate, he’s likely to get 37 percent of the vote. It’s entirely possible that this thing that became a vehicle for [the Republicans] will eventually result in the election of Cruz Bustamante.”

The state’s demographics seem to bear that out. California is a heavily Democratic state and Mr. Bustamante can expect strong support from fellow Hispanics, the state’s largest minority.

If Republicans don’t unite around one candidate their vote will be split. While conservative Bill Simon bowed out Saturday, citing his poor polling numbers, state Sen. Tom McClintock and businessman Peter Ueberroth have vowed to stay in the race.

Mr. Bustamante, however, is the only prominent Democrat on the ballot, and has secured the support of several labor unions, important cogs in the state’s Democratic machine. On Thursday, California’s Democratic congressional delegation also unanimously threw its support behind his campaign.

Phil Giarrizzo, a California-based Democratic campaign consultant, said Mr. Bustamante must define what he stands for and let voters know who he is to capitalize on the factors already in his favor.

“Even though Cruz has been in public service for an extended period of time, he hasn’t had the level of exposure on his policies,” Mr. Giarrizzo said. “He has to distinguish himself from Gray Davis and from Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

The biggest factor to the advantage of Mr. Bustamante is probably his Hispanic surname, said Joe Cerell, a 40-year veteran of California Democratic politics.

“It will be the most racist campaign in the history of California,” Mr. Cerell said, explaining that he meant that in “the best way.”

“Sure, there’s going to be some redneck who says he won’t vote for a Mexican. But this will turn into a real crusade [for Hispanics]. The only thing missing will be Cesar Chavez leading the parade.”

If the recall of the governor looks more and more like an inevitability as Election Day approaches — the Los Angeles Times poll showed 50 percent of likely voters in support of the recall with 45 percent opposed — Republicans will stop attacking Mr. Davis and direct more of their fire at Mr. Bustamante, political observers say.

“They will eventually link Bustamante and Davis,” Mr. Cerell predicted. “They’re joined at the hip.”

Mr. Bustamante has come out in favor of $8 billion in new tax increases on upper-income earners, businesses, smokers and drinkers. He would pour that money into helping erase a record $38 billion deficit and spending on education, health care and scrapping the state tax on vehicles.

The Republican candidates all have promised to solve the state’s budget crisis without implementing new taxes.

“I don’t know that [Mr. Bustamante] is going to be anything other than a reliable liberal Democrat,” said Ken Masugi, director of the Center for Local Government at the Claremont Institute in California. “I suppose the liberal [Democrats] would like him better than Davis, who was moderate on many issues.”

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