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6 Candidates Coming Into Sharp Focus

Despite talk of a circus of 135, the recall drive is turning into a more traditional race with a field of two Democrats and four Republicans.

August 19, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

With California's gubernatorial recall election seven weeks away, the top protagonists, Gov. Gray Davis and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, face key tests this week as they race to build support among voters.

The Democratic governor hopes a major speech on the recall that he plans to give today at UCLA could reverse his political slide. Davis will lay out his most forceful and detailed arguments to date on why voters should keep him in office. His main goal is to erode support for the recall among rank-and-file Democrats.

Strategists say Davis also needs to shift the focus away from the race among the 135 candidates seeking to replace him, and back to the yes-or-no referendum on whether to kick him out of office.

"He's lost that in the past week, and anything he can do to bring it back there helps him," said Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman.

On the Republican side, Schwarzenegger will try to bolster his standing as the GOP front-runner, mainly by launching a statewide television ad campaign Wednesday. The film star's ads will hit the air amid mounting attacks by rivals who accuse him of refusing to say how he would confront the state's problems.

The jockeying by Davis and Schwarzenegger is the most visible part of what has evolved into a sharply defined contest -- in some ways even a traditional one -- among half a dozen serious candidates.

Davis is the only one who needs a majority vote. The first part of the ballot is a yes or no question on whether to bounce him from office.

The second part of the ballot will list Schwarzenegger and 134 other candidates seeking to replace Davis. Davis cannot run in the replacement race. If he is tossed out of office, the winner would become governor, even if that candidate gets fewer votes than Davis.

A key problem for Davis is the presence of a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, on the replacement ballot.

For months, Davis urged fellow Democrats to stay off the ballot under the assumption that it would be easier for him to beat the recall if the only alternative was a Republican.

But Bustamante broke his pledge to stay off the ballot. He now urges Californians to vote no on the recall, but yes on Bustamante to ensure that the state's governor remains a Democrat regardless of whether Davis wins on the first question.

Now, however, Davis faces polls showing a solid majority of Californians support the recall. Those polls are increasing pressure on unions and other Democratic constituency groups to back Bustamante's campaign against the governor's wishes.

Most immediately, Davis is locked in a fierce competition with Bustamante for campaign money. Both are turning to the same pool of contributors as they scramble for donations to pay for television advertising.

"There's not that much money to go around," said state Democratic Chairman Art Torres.

With 49 days until the Oct. 7 special election, Davis and Bustamante are quickly running out of time to raise the millions of dollars that would take months or years to collect in a normal campaign. The task is especially hard when Democratic presidential candidates are simultaneously sweeping up money from California donors like "Hoover vacuum cleaners," Torres said

Bustamante strategist Richard Ross said Davis advisors have leaned on potential donors to deny support to the lieutenant governor.

"It's political greed gone berserk," Ross said.

Davis advisor Garry South called the accusation a flat-out lie.

Still, Bustamante's efforts to gain support have begun to bear fruit. The biggest union of state workers, the California State Employees Assn., announced Monday that it was not just opposing the recall of Davis, but also endorsing Bustamante. Other unions could follow suit within days.

For Bustamante, the overall task ahead is less daunting than it is for Davis. While Davis must win more than 50% of the vote on the up-or-down question on the recall, Bustamante only needs to gain a larger share than the other 134 candidates on the replacement ballot.

Bustamante's candidacy -- and his lead in a recent Field Poll -- has also had repercussions on the Republican side. With GOP support divided between four major candidates, some Republicans fear that Bustamante could emerge as the winner, shattering their party's hope of using the recall to reverse years of losses in statewide elections.

"What I want is for them to all show some leadership, by getting together and deciding which candidate among themselves has the best chance to win this recall, and then everybody get on board," said Rick Veldstra, chairman of the San Joaquin County Republican Committee.

The other major Republican candidates are state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, Bill Simon Jr., a businessman from Pacific Palisades, and Peter V. Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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