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The State | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Top Democrats Lean Toward Bustamante

Party leaders still hope the recall fails, but many say the lieutenant governor is the best backup. Garamendi rejects calls to drop out.

August 09, 2003|Dan Morain, Nick Anderson and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

California Democrats, still vowing to defeat the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, moved closer on Friday to embracing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as their best backup candidate.

Prominent party leaders urged the other high-profile Democrat who says he intends to run, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, to bow out, but Garamendi brushed aside the entreaties.

As Democrats considered strategy in the 59-day race that officially starts Sunday, some of the more prominent candidates seeking to replace Davis began campaigning in advance of today's 5 p.m. filing deadline.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on all three network morning shows and spent about an hour in Bellflower kicking off the 11th annual Inner City Games, an athletic contest for children from minority neighborhoods that he has long sponsored.

Garamendi worked the crowd at L.A.'s Farmers Market.

Bustamante submitted the paperwork needed to become an official candidate to the secretary of state's office. "I've been getting a tremendous amount of calls in support saying, 'Thank you for putting your name in,' " Bustamante said.

Peter Ueberroth, the former major league baseball commissioner and head of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, announced his candidacy in a statement released by his office.

Strategists for Ueberroth, a registered Republican who plans to run as an independent, said they believe that the public will tire of Schwarzenegger after a couple of weeks of celebrity overload, leaving an opening for a candidate stressing substance and competence.

In an interview, Ueberroth cited his ability to work with Democrats and Republicans on the Olympics and his efforts to bring economic development to riot-scarred parts of L.A. in the 1990s. He said he hoped that a similar approach could tone down the often-bitter partisanship in the state capital.

"I don't think a fistfight in Sacramento is going to do anybody any good," he said.

Davis spent much of Friday on the phone, seeking donations for his campaign and discussing policy and pending legislation with aides in his Sacramento office. In an interview taped Friday night for HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," Davis said a successful recall effort would open a Pandora's box.

"People don't want constant campaigning, and I guarantee you, Bill, if this recall hypothetically were to succeed, you'd have another recall. You'd have constant campaigns," the governor said.

He and his aides have said they will wait until they learn who all the candidates are today before devising a final strategy to defeat the recall effort.

In a field now officially of at least 51 -- and expected to grow with last-minute filings today -- there were more unusual political moments as well.

Former child star Gary Coleman, also running as an independent, appeared on CNN to say he was throwing his support behind Schwarzenegger, although his name will stay on the ballot. Because of the short period between the filing deadline and election, once a candidate has formally entered the race, he or she cannot be taken off the ballot, election officials said.

The Oct. 7 election will offer voters two questions on the governorship. The first will ask if Davis should keep his job. The second will give voters, regardless of how they voted on the first question, a choice of potential successors. If Davis gets fewer than 50% of the votes on the up-or-down ballot, the next governor will be whoever gets the most votes in that successor contest.

Top Democrats -- who only two months ago vowed defiantly to offer no replacement candidate for the ballot -- say their priority remains defeating the recall effort. But amid increasing concern about the governor's dwindling support in public opinion polls, many have become convinced that they would be making a mistake if they offered voters no Democratic alternative on the successor ballot.

"One is preferable to two, and two's preferable to three," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), echoing a line being used by Democratic politicians statewide. "If there's more than one, it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to retain the governorship for the Democrats."

As Democratic officials discussed their strategy, they circulated numbers from a survey taken by a Democratic polling firm that continue to show Davis losing the recall vote. The numbers also suggest, however, that Bustamante could be within striking distance of Schwarzenegger in an election for a successor, the officials said.

Several polls taken this week have shown somewhat more than half the electorate supporting the recall effort and about 4 in 10 backing Davis. The new poll was consistent with that.

On the election of a potential successor, the poll showed that Schwarzenegger had the support of about one-fourth the electorate. And the margin by which Bustamante trailed him -- several percentage points -- was roughly equivalent to Garamendi's support.

"Garamendi obviously hurts Bustamante," said a prominent Sacramento Democrat who asked not to be named.

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