The Orange County Republican Party billed its banquet Saturday night in Costa Mesa as a salute to Flag Day, but the star speaker, Darrell Issa, bounded to the stage and quipped, "This is the farewell party for Gray Davis, isn't it?"
The ballroom erupted in cheers. Party loyalists waved newly made Issa for Governor signs. For the grinning Republican congressman, standing before a giant American flag, the scene affirmed unmistakably that the $700,000 he has invested so far in the campaign to dump the governor of California has begun to pay off.
"We are going to have an election that will throw Gray Davis out," he told the crowd.
If a recall election occurs, it will be thanks in large part to the money supplied by Issa, a businessman from the San Diego suburbs who reports his net worth at more than $100 million. Less clear is whether Issa, 49, could emerge as the voters' pick from a potentially crowded field of candidates to replace the Democratic governor.
In the six years since Issa launched his first campaign for public office, he has defined himself as a staunch conservative, a profile that clashes with a California electorate that has shunned Republicans in recent elections.
The difficulty he faces now in broadening his appeal to moderates was apparent on a weekend campaign swing around Southern California. As he rode in the back of a Ford Expedition from the hills above Santa Barbara through Los Angeles to Costa Mesa, Issa struggled to articulate consistent positions on a host of issues, from guns and immigration to the state fiscal crisis.
His votes against gun control earned him an "A" rating last year from the National Rifle Assn. but Issa vowed Saturday to support renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban this year. "If we were to undo it, it would simply make it more of a failure," he said.
On Proposition 187, the ballot measure to deny public services to immigrants, Issa staked out a clear position during his unsuccessful 1998 campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination: He backed it despite qualms about a provision barring children of illegal immigrants from public schools. But Saturday, Issa said he had voted against Proposition 187. "I spoke on both sides of that all along," he explained.
Issa also backpedaled from his call in the Senate race to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. "Getting rid of the National Endowment for the Arts is a red-meat statement that one makes in a primary," he said.
Issa said California's arts subsidies "should be up for discussion" in closing the state's record $38-billion budget gap, but he lamented "an absence of art programs in inner cities."
"Are there areas in which support of the arts can be used effectively for the common good or in fact to meet an appropriate social agenda? I would say, yes, there are," he said.
Only Candidate So Far
So far, Issa is the only declared candidate to replace Davis in what would be California's first gubernatorial recall election -- if it qualifies for the ballot. Republicans weighing whether to run include actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Simon Jr., the GOP nominee who lost to Davis last year. On the Democratic side, speculation has focused on U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and state Treasurer Phil Angelides.
To plot strategy for the possible governor's race, Issa has hired Ronald Reagan campaign veteran Ken Khachigian. Issa has given his campaign $100,000 in start-up money and opened offices in San Diego and Orange counties. He has hired a pollster and more than a dozen other staffers, including a researcher to dig up dirt on rivals. ("Lots of targets of opportunity," Issa campaign manager Scott Taylor said.)
But even Republican analysts give Issa slim odds of overcoming his conservative background on social issues. He has opposed legal abortion and gun control, for instance, which polls say put him at odds with most California voters. GOP consultant Allen Hoffenblum said Issa's foes are apt to defeat him by painting him as "part of the right-wing cabal, quote unquote."
Still, by putting up the money to turn a Davis recall election from an improbable dream into a likely reality, Issa has galvanized the conservative base of a state party beleaguered by its mounting record of defeats. Issa's Rescue California committee is paying petition circulators to gather the nearly 900,000 voter signatures needed to qualify the recall for the ballot. The signature deadline is Sept. 2; if enough valid signatures are tallied, voters will decide whether to recall Davis and, at the same time, who would replace him if he is thrown out of office.