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National Hopefuls Eclipsed by Recall

California's Oct. 7 vote is stealing the limelight from Democratic presidential campaigns.

August 23, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

First Iraq, now California.

For months, the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls struggled for attention as the nation and much of the news media focused on the buildup to war, then the invasion of Iraq and, finally, the difficult aftermath.

That changed briefly, amid questions about the Bush administration's case for war and a burst of enthusiasm surrounding former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the early part of July.

But now the Democratic field has again receded into darkness, overshadowed by California recall politics and the all-eclipsing gubernatorial candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The presidential campaign goes on, with particular intensity in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates are raising money, announcing endorsements, issuing press releases and offering a running commentary on events of the day, from the bombings in Jerusalem and Baghdad to the latest sour economic statistics.

They even come to California, sticky as tensions within the Democratic Party make it, largely because they have little choice. "It's hard to have a serious [fund-raising] plan that doesn't include California in some significant way," said Steve Elmendorf, a strategist for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

But for all the exertion, few seem to be paying the candidates much mind.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut recently stopped by San Francisco to assail President Bush's environmental policies -- "a guaranteed media-coverage getter" in this most green of states, said press spokesman Jano Cabrera. But just about the only thing reporters cared about was Lieberman's criticism of the recall and his support for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

"We're adjusting," Cabrera quipped afterward. "From this point forward, Lieberman will only speak in corny one-liners and appear at all public events bare-chested and glistening in oil."

Kidding aside, it is hard to say which of the Democratic presidential contenders are helped or hurt by the sudden falloff in interest. Dean landed earlier this month on the cover of Time and Newsweek, the ultimate sign of political and pop culture validation -- only to be elbowed aside a few days later by Schwarzenegger. While that gave Dean a relatively brief turn in the media limelight, it also reduced the risk of overexposure and the heightened scrutiny that can ensue.

Lieberman and fellow Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, meantime, are both working to shake a widely held perception that their campaigns are in trouble. By the same token, with all the attention paid to California, there has been less coverage of the problems they face.

"Clearly, there's only room for one big political story at a time in this country ... and right now, for at least the time being, it's the recall," said Paul Maslin, who conducts political polling for both Dean and Gov. Gray Davis. "The question is whether it can continue at this level all the way through" the Oct. 7 election.

The one clear beneficiary of the media's consumption preoccupation with California, analysts agree, is President Bush. In recent weeks, the recall has brushed aside much focus on the mounting postwar death toll in Iraq, except when events like the U.N. headquarters bombing in Baghdad thrust it back onto the front pages.

"The biggest downside for the Democrats running is the difficulty of keeping the momentum going in their case against Bush, because Bush isn't really in the picture now," said Marty Kaplan, a former Democratic strategist and now associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

Or as GOP pollster Bill McInturff put it: "When's the last time you heard anything about yellowcake from Niger?" -- a reference to the early summer controversy over Iraq's nuclear ambitions.

It is a different story, however, in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The two states open the presidential nominating season in fewer than six months, and for people there, California's antic election is little more than a sideshow.

"To us, the recall feels like the Northeast blackout must've felt to Californians -- unbelievable and far away," said Jennifer Skalka, a political writer for the Concord Monitor.

The paper, published in New Hampshire's capital, has accorded the recall a few front-page stories, including Skalka's profile of George Butler, a state resident and the filmmaker who directed Schwarzenegger in his movie breakthrough, "Pumping Iron." But the paper has not covered the recall on a daily basis, and most accounts have run on inside pages.

Similarly, the Des Moines Register has carried a handful of recall stories, but nothing compared with the copy churned out by the three to four staffers covering the presidential campaign in Iowa on any given day.

"About the only time you hear it come up is when someone asks, 'What the hell is going on out in California?' " said David Yepsen, the paper's veteran political columnist. "There's nothing going on out there ... that's slowing the process down."

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