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Wrong Time for a Change

August 22, 2003

Compared with the husky, tanned self-confidence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gov. Gray Davis never stood a chance of looking good. His chance of being seen as a better choice in the recall rests on being a sharper thinker and persuading voters he can make California better in his second term. So far, it's Schwarzenegger claiming the future while Davis tries to justify his past. The rest of the pack is mostly struggling for the spotlight.

After two weeks of ducking the media, Schwarzenegger stood before a mob of reporters for 45 minutes Wednesday and did not wither or explode. Surprise!

He promised leadership and action if elected governor Oct. 7. That seems to be enough for many voters who are weary of stalemate in Sacramento. His relaxed, confident performance was what won converts.

Davis' herky-jerky defense/excuse at UCLA the previous night contained no vision of what he could do for the state in the next three years. On most issues, Davis is in sync with a majority of Californians, but his inability to lead the Legislature and his chilliness to all but big contributors have repelled would-be allies.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante also stepped up his conflicted no-on-recall-but-yes-for-Cruz campaign by outlining his budget plan. Calling for nearly $8 billion in new taxes, it was not unlike Davis' first budget last January, which was rejected by Republicans because it raised taxes and by Democrats because it cut pet programs too much. Bustamante, despite his me-too dullness, stands a chance if the state's labor unions unite to drop Davis and put everything they have behind the lieutenant governor.

Former Olympics director Peter Ueberroth, running as an independent, said the state could reap as much as $6 billion from a simple tax amnesty, miraculously almost enough to fill the spending gap next year. No realist has offered that kind of figure.

Other "major" candidates -- columnist Arianna Huffington, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) and Bill Simon Jr., the Republican defeated by Davis in 2002, were ending the week as background noise.

Schwarzenegger was smart not to get more specific. As it was, he complained that California was now "tax, tax, tax all day long" and recalled the golden days when he first arrived here in 1968. He may want to drop that line, since the rates of income, business and property taxes are all lower now than they were in 1968, just a year after Ronald Reagan raised taxes by a record percentage.

Schwarzenegger has Reagan-like good looks and communications skills. His appeal to voters battered by the economy and tired of dull, fragmented government is perfectly understandable. But that doesn't erase the wrongness of a recall bought by partisan dollars for reasons not much better than dislike of the elected governor. Voters attracted to Schwarzenegger can have it both ways by rejecting the recall now and voting for him in the regular 2006 election, which is when the state should be changing governors.

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