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National Republicans Mixed on Davis Recall

Some believe ousting California's governor would do the party more harm than good.

June 25, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For Republicans, it would seem a uniquely attractive prospect: removing the Democratic governor of the nation's largest state as the 2004 presidential campaign gears up.

But national GOP strategists are divided and ambivalent about the political implications of the drive to recall California Gov. Gray Davis.

While Democrats for now have largely unified behind the beleaguered Davis, the national Republicans are split over whether the recall effort will help or hurt the party's long-term prospects in the state.

Some recall supporters believe President Bush would become more likely to seriously contest California in 2004 if Davis gets ousted and is replaced by a Republican governor. But other party strategists believe that if an unpopular Davis remains in office, he could become a weight on the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, thus boosting Bush's prospects.

Said one senior national GOP operative, referring to Davis: "I'm not sure that we are not better off having someone who is so unpopular ... representing Democrats there. The quagmire is if you get a new Republican in office, and the [state's] problems are just translated to them."

The White House has held its cards so closely that activists on each side of the recall battle are convinced it is working against them. Bush has said nothing publicly about the anti-Davis effort, and administration officials say they are playing no role in the fight.

Still, some California Democrats accuse Bush strategists of encouraging the effort. Meanwhile, California conservatives supporting the recall believe the White House has discouraged local Republicans from contributing money or support.

"To the people that are pushing the recall, [the White House] is saying: 'We are going to watch it ... but we're not involved,' " said one California GOP activist working hard to oust Davis. "But the donors seem to get a different message. I think it's subtle in that [administration officials] communicate to the donors that they don't think it's a good idea, and that detracts."

Depending on how quickly supporters can gather petitions, a recall election could be held either in November or in March, in conjunction with the state's presidential primary. Voters would face two questions on the ballot -- one asking whether Davis should be recalled from office and the other listing candidates to replace him in the event the recall passes. No primary would be held to qualify candidates for the recall ballot; any person who pays a $3,500 filing fee could be on the ballot.

So far, both parties' national leaders have minimized their direct involvement in the recall effort, leaving the key decisions to state politicians and activists.

In recent weeks, the most important development on Davis' side has been the procession of prominent California Democrats -- including Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- who have said they don't intend to run as a potential successor if the recall qualifies for a vote.

But the national party seems to have played no significant role in this push. One leading Los Angeles Democratic fund-raiser, for instance, said no national officials had called to ask him to pressure the well-known Democrats not to run.

"There has been a concerted effort to unify Democrats on this issue, but mostly run [from within] the state," said Washington-based Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

The national activity on the Republican side also has been limited. At the influential weekly strategy meetings of national conservative groups convened by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, the recall has been a subject of interest, but not activity, Norquist said.

"People are saying, 'Keep me informed,' but they aren't saying we have to pile on," he said.

Most of California's 20 Republican House members also have stayed away from the fight -- even though their colleague, Rep. Darrell E. Issa of Vista, provided the funds to revive the recall and said he would run for governor if it reaches the ballot.

When Roll Call, a Washington newspaper that covers Congress, surveyed the GOP House members earlier this week, only a handful expressed any support for the recall and several openly opposed it.

Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), for example, said Republicans would have a better chance of capturing the governorship if they waited until the regularly scheduled 2006 election. Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) said the recall would let Davis and Democrats "off the hook" for the budget mess that he said they created.

The biggest unknown is the White House's attitude toward the recall. Even well-connected Republicans find themselves reading tea leaves, trying to divine the preference of Bush and his key aides -- including Karl Rove, the president's top political strategist.

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