- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in the California gubernatorial-recall election bolsters President Bush’s re-election prospects in a Democratic state the White House feared was unwinnable but now sees as a competitive battleground in 2004.

Republican Party strategists said last night that the overwhelming vote to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the stronger-than-expected vote for the movie-star action hero — now a rising star in the party — will dramatically change the political climate in a state that is the biggest electoral prize in presidential elections.

Republican officials and White House strategists said the rarely successful recall-petition process and the tumultuous campaign that followed helped energize Republicans, bring new voters into the ranks and make Mr. Davis a national example of what they say are Democrats’ tax-and-spend politics and their inability to govern.

“Throughout all this, the focus has been on Gray Davis’ failed Democratic governorship, his enormous unpopularity. And that has united and expanded the party and can only help us next year up and down the ticket,” said a Republican Party official in Washington.

“Regardless of who wins, we think California is in play for us in 2004,” another Republican official said early yesterday before the results were known. “Over 500,000 people who signed the petition to recall Davis were registered Democrats.”

Republican strategists say the party’s voter registration has risen during this recall period and that many Democrats, fed up with the economic, fiscal and energy problems the state has endured during Mr. Davis’ tenure, have changed registration or will be among the swing voters that can put the state into the Republican column.

While Mr. Bush’s job-approval numbers have declined in the past couple of months, his campaign strategists believe that is only temporary and that they will rise as the economic recovery takes hold and unemployment begins to fall.

This summer, when Mr. Bush’s job-approval ratings were running in the high 50s and low 60s, he was beating all of his prospective Democratic rivals in head-to-head matchups in California. That represented a sharp turnaround since the 2000 election, when he lost the state to Al Gore 53 percent to 42 percent.

Earlier this year, there were some in the White House who were dubious about the recall effort, believing Republicans had a better chance in the state next year with an unpopular Democratic governor still in office.

But that view seemed to fade after the recall-petition drive succeeded, the recall campaign got under way and Arnold Schwarzenegger surged past his rivals in the polls. The campaign was helping Republicans and hurting Democrats on a number of different levels.

Mr. Davis was becoming the most notorious Democratic governor in the country, known for his 20 percent approval rating in a state that was falling deeply into debt and experiencing an exodus of businesses.

At the same time, national news coverage of the race was eclipsing coverage of the Democratic Party’s presidential campaigns, when the party needed as much media attention as it could get for a slate of candidates that remains little known to the nation at large.

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