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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

With Simon Out, Let the GOP Continue Thinning the Herd

August 24, 2003|Steve Lopez

I never intended to make a habit of giving free advice to candidates for governor, but since they appear to be listening, why stop now?

Bill Simon finally got the hint and dropped out of the race on Saturday, and when I told Arnold Schwarzenegger to bank on his celebrity and avoid specifics, not only did he listen up, but he boldly proclaimed voters don't give a hoot about specifics.

My favorite moment at Arnold's press conference last week was when former Reagan cabinet member George P. Shultz said there were three things about Arnold that impressed him, but then seemed to have trouble remembering what they were.

Shultz was strong on No. 1, saying Arnold had demonstrated an ability to listen to people when they spoke. On his way to No. 2, Shultz kind of lost his way, but recovered in time to say -- are you ready, California? -- the actor made up his own mind about what he heard and what he thought of it.

For No. 3, all Shultz could come up with was that he liked Arnold.

It sounded more like a report card for a kindergarten student than an endorsement for governor.

But that was last week, and my advice today isn't for Schwarzenegger; it's for the rest of the Republicans and Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

If you read today's story on the Times Poll, you know Bustamante is out in front of the pack as the horses make the first turn. This is both good news and bad news for Bustamante.

The good news for Cruz is that Schwarzenegger, the next closest candidate, is eating Bustamante's dust, trailing him 35% to 22%. The bad news for Cruz is that he is almost sure to be ganged up on by his foes and beaten like a birthday pinata.

Why, you ask?

He's the only Democrat on the ballot in a state with a big Democratic advantage among registered voters. On the GOP side, Schwarzenegger, Peter Ueberroth and state Sen. Tom McClintock probably can't win without savaging Cruz and then continuing to thin their own herd.

Imagine the horror of California Republicans. They might finally realize their dream of toppling Gray Davis, but accidentally replace him with a Democrat who was nearly invisible until recently, when Cruz decided, "What the heck?" and tossed his hat into the ring. Now he's got Democrats cheering him on.

It's like "Being There," in which Peter Sellers played a gardener who happened to be in the right place at the right time and rose to national prominence. That's why Republicans are pulling their hair out. If they take a relatively obscure Latino character from Fresno farm country and turn him into a star, they'll never be able to forgive themselves.

Look for them to continue pummeling Bustamante as a career hack who's sold out to Indian gaming, has a lobbyist as a campaign boss, proposed tax hikes to balance an inflated budget, and worst of all, is a rounder version of Public Enemy No. 1: Gov. Davis.

"He's Gray with a receding hairline and a mustache," says GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, one operative who's got the stomach for the battle ahead.

Can Bustamante survive this kind of abuse?

My advice is that he take the beating like a man, and keep a smile on his face, too. There are worse things than getting tarred and feathered as a typical Democrat in a state where Dems have a 45%-35% advantage over Republicans. Not that Bustamante can afford to shift into Cruz control.

After they take turns roughing up Bustamante, Republican candidates will have to assemble at the country club and draw straws, because they simply can't afford to split the GOP vote.

Euthanasia is their only hope.

Ueberroth's got some bipartisan support, but he ain't setting the world on fire. McClintock's got the far right, but he doesn't have a deep enough campaign stash. Simple Simon had the cash, but someone must have finally shown that man a photo of his children, because he was flushing their inheritance down the commode.

Can McClintock surge, now that he's got a chance of grabbing some of Simon's backers? McClintock was likening himself to Seabiscuit on Saturday, but unless he hits the lottery in the next few days, the more apt comparison might be Mr. Ed.

Conservative partisans get heartburn having to admit it, but they know the Republican with the best shot might just be a pro-choice Hollywood player who's married to a Kennedy and doesn't know beans about state government.

Speaking of Hollywood, you couldn't have made up this script. If Davis gets dumped, a former Mr. Universe who rocketed to international movie fame whipping barbarians, cyborgs and all manner of superhuman forces may finally have met his match in a short fat bald guy from Fresno.

But as I noted last week, Schwarzenegger's got some skill as a politician, so he might be able to go a long way on money and name recognition.

And let me tell you a few things about Arnold you're going to find very impressive. He knows how to listen to people. He's capable of making up his own mind. And he's also ... wait a minute. What was No. 3 again?


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes .com.

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