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Commentary | ON THE RECALL / Peter H. King

With Oddballs Fading, the Conventional Horse Race Is On

August 31, 2003|Peter H. King

Haven't seen Gary Coleman lately on television. You OK, lil' fella? Still selling those Coleman-for-Governor travel mugs and thongs on the Internet? And what's become of Mary Carey, the people's stripper? Ms. Carey, please don't go coy on us now; we're still waiting for your position on the Cal-Fed process.

Mary? Mary?

Yes, the recall campaign appears to have turned a corner. In the last week or so, the national chortling about crazy Californians and their equally whacked-out political process has begun to diminish. The circus soon will fold its gaudy tent and cartwheel out of town.

In its stead will come a fierce, frantic and yet in many ways conventional horse race. Between this Labor Day weekend and the Oct. 7 recall election, the rude business of politics will be at its rudest in California. As the clowns exit the bus, more-familiar players will jostle aboard -- the big-money people with decisions to influence in Sacramento, the dirt merchants with their archived interviews and grainy photographs.

This is not to suggest that the scamper down the backstretch will be boring. Indeed, some interesting story lines seem certain to emerge. For example, there is the campaign by fellow Republicans to convince Tom McClintock to quit the race. McClintock is regarded as an earnest but unbending fiscal and social conservative -- a double-con, in the parlance of the political right. Polls indicate he is drawing double-digit support as a recall candidate.

If he stays in the race, Republicans worry, McClintock might drain away enough votes from Arnold Schwarzenegger to throw the election to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, outside of Gray Davis the only serious Democrat in contention. And so, between now and election day, there will come a steady stream of telephone calls from ranking Republicans:

Tom, it's not your time.

Tom, keep this up and your Senate office staff will be moving soon to the nearest available closet.

"McClintock," said Gary Lawrence, a veteran GOP pollster in Orange County, "is going to feel tremendous pressure from every segment of the party, including conservatives who will be willing to get half a loaf now and worry about the other half later."

So far, McClintock has struck a defiant pose: "If the most qualified candidate must defer every time a celebrity or millionaire casts a longing eye on public office, we've lost something very important in our democracy.... Let me assure everyone that I am one horse that is in this race to the finish line."

The election may well turn on whether McClintock will scratch.

Another plot line has to do with California Democrats and their attitudes toward Davis. It's not exactly a love-hate relationship. It's more a tolerate-hate relationship. Davis earned his unpopularity within the party, one sharp elbow and petty outburst at a time. He was the governor who haughtily instructed legislators to "implement my vision."

During the energy crisis, the joy some Democrats experienced as they watched him flailing in treacherous water seemed almost palpable. The early weeks of the recall no doubt offered a similar form of merriment: Gee, Gov. Davis, we'd love to bail you out, but we're too busy implementing ... your ... vision!

Now, though, as the election looms ever closer, the humiliation of Davis may seem less of a lark for Democrats. Instead, they may rally around the idea that the governorship might not be taken away only from Davis. It also might be taken away from them.

And if Democrats were to become motivated enough to turn out in full force and vote -- whether for Davis or Bustamante or both -- any maneuvering among Republican candidates would be eclipsed by this simple fact: Democrats in California outnumber Republicans among registered voters 44% to 35%, a difference of roughly 1.4 million votes.

Finally, there is the Arnold factor. The sense is that a lot of Californians don't yet know quite what to make of Schwarzenegger, the self-proclaimed populist with a personal fortune worth some $200 million. Yes, he seems to be earnest. Yes, he's no dummy. The lesson, however, should have been learned long ago -- insert your favorite celebrity trial or tabloid sex scandal here -- that images projected by larger-than-life figures of American culture often have little grounding in reality.

Schwarzenegger did give a terrific, albeit brief, speech in Fresno Thursday, exhorting an enthusiastic crowd to rise up against the "system," to announce to Sacramento that "we aren't going to take it anymore." In short, he either was the perfect image of a populist leader -- or an actor delivering the perfect image of a populist leader. We have five weeks to figure out which.

Peter H. King's twice-weekly column will run through the recall election.

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