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Is California a prize worth winning?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 18, 2003

Arnold Schwarzenegger draws the headlines and the TV cameras in California's overcrowded recall race, and Arianna Huffington may add some glamour, but smart political observers may very well be looking at the wrong politician to win it all on October 7, assuming that voters decide to recall Gray Davis.

He's not the glitziest guy in the race. He's not the richest guy. But he's a known quantity and the only statewide elected official.

Cruz Bustamante is unique in this free-for-all. He is the only name Democrat running. The smartest thing the Democrats have done in this race is to clear the field for Bustamante. They hope to consolidate the vote behind one candidate in the event that the voters decide to recall Davis.

Unfortunately, the Republican / conservative vote will be split between at least five Republican candidates.

First, there's Arnold, who is no social conservative. He intends to transfer his box office appeal to the ballot box. He's armed with one-liners but does he really have an ability to address the bottom line issues? California's problems are so deep, you simply can't say "hasta la vista" to them and expect them to go away. True, he has advisors from the administration of Governor Pete Wilson. He will probably draw the younger, independent-leaning libertarian types - the kind of voters who are not dependable at turning out - as opposed to die-hard conservatives and Republicans. His reputation, higher poll ratings and sizable bankbook certainly put the other Republicans at an initial disadvantage.

There's Bill Simon, a solid conservative who certainly has a bankroll to shoot. He received on-the-job training in California politics last year during his race against Gray Davis. The governor, as is his style, had to trash Simon to win reelection, given his obvious failure to offer voters any kind of real inspiration in his own record. Simon's campaign stalled for a while after a stunning upset in the primary by the heavily favored Richard Riordan, then the mayor of Los Angeles. Simon finished five percentage points behind Davis' 47% in the fall election, an indication of the governor's lackluster appeal. He's thoughtful and principled, but Simon has to struggle out from under Arnold's huge shadow.

Tom McClintock, a state Senator from Simi Valley is an experienced Republican with expertise on fiscal issues. McClintock drew more votes than Simon last year in the race for state controller; a race that neither of them won. He definitely has a following among grassroots conservative activists.

Peter Ueberroth was the president and CEO of the 1984 Olympic games and former commissioner of Major League Baseball. He can talk about his own business experience and play upon the nostalgia of some bygone better days.

The presence of McClintock, Simon, Arnold, Uberroth and Arianna Huffington, the ex-Gingrich gal gone Hollywood, means it will be very hard to consolidate the GOP vote.

How galvanizing a Democrat candidate is Bustamante?

Cruz Bustamante

On the plus side, Bustamante can deliver an inspiring story. He's the guy from a working-class family who went to work in the fields at a young age and wanted to be a butcher. He ended up becoming a state legislator and then lieutenant governor: the first Hispanic elected official to be elected statewide in well over 100 years.

Bustamante can count on organized labor to come through for him. This election will serve as a test drive for organized labor's 2004 turnout effort. Some unions are said to be somewhat standoffish on Bustamante, but given what is at stake, the odds are that the unions will be putting forward a full court press to elect him.

Then, there's the trump card. Bustamante is Hispanic-American in a state where Hispanics are becoming more politically powerful. Indeed, even if that is not enough to help turn out Hispanic Democrats, perhaps Wilson, who was not fondly remembered by many Hispanics for supporting the 1994 Proposition 187 initiative to deny illegal aliens the services of state government, will prove to be a useful foil for Bustamante. None other than Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the left-wing American Prospect has suggested this strategy.

In this field of glamorous and rich candidates, Bustamante is the one who may be able to convince average voters that he understands what they are going through. He's not photogenic, but he has a plainspoken way of talking. If Bustamante has it in him to be a Trumanesque Democrat, speaking in an appealing manner to the guy on the street or at least the core Democrat constituencies, then he might start to catch on. In order for that to really happen, the Democrats are going to have to make a couple of decisions. They have to pull the anti-recall campaign off life support, which would send the governor to the political graveyard, and then decide to rally behind Bustamante.

Bustamante is no social conservative. Conservatives might attempt to dampen enthusiasm for him among traditionally-minded Hispanics. There are at least two areas of vulnerability. Bustamante is in favor of domestic partnership legislation favored by the state's homosexual lobbies. He is also weak on pro-life issues.

As for what role the recall will play in 2004 politics, my bet is that many GOP strategists, particularly those outside California, are secretly hoping to let this so-called opportunity slip through their fingers.

The recall is not going to put California's fiscal house in order. If a Republican wins, the odds are that he will become embroiled in a battle with contentious and partisan Democrat majorities in the state House and state Senate who have offered no real support for Gray Davis, but would certainly not cooperate with a Republican governor. If that's the case, the new governor is likely to become the state's new scapegoat. That will not do President Bush any good at all in the 2004 campaign. Whereas, a failing Democrat governor of America's largest state might be a useful foil for the President. "If you want to send all of America speeding down the same dead-end freeway that led to California's crackup, then put a Democrat in the White House," the GOP could warn.

So, that's what Republican pros are probably thinking: Why not sit it out for three more years and then make it a clean sweep, electing a GOP governor as well as several more legislators.

It may not be the most pleasant thing to say, but that's the way I see it. If I'm wrong, then all I will be able to say is, "Well, who in their right mind can predict what a state as crazy as California will do?"

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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