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Democrats See Few National Ramifications if Davis Loses

October 02, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Faced with a chance of losing the California governorship, Democrats across the country are mostly shrugging off the danger and hoping Gray Davis can still prevail. But even a win by Arnold Schwarzenegger won't fundamentally change the course of state or national politics, they insist.

California is so Democratic in its leanings, the recall election is so unusual and Schwarzenegger is so unlike other candidates that the state and its 55 electoral votes should remain safely in the party's column in November 2004, party strategists say -- and many of their Republican counterparts agree.

Moreover, strategists for both major parties say the political profile that makes Schwarzenegger well suited to California -- fiscal conservatism and a permissive stance on social issues -- would not likely travel well beyond state borders, limiting the appeal of his hybrid Republicanism.

"Schwarzenegger is a total California phenomenon," said Stephen Moore, a conservative activist in Washington and supporter of the actor's candidacy.

"In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger could not be elected governor of any state but California. He would never make it through a Republican primary."

Democrats continued to express faith Wednesday in Gov. Davis' political resilience and ability to keep his job, despite opinion polls -- including a new Los Angeles Times survey -- that show him slipping and Schwarzenegger gaining strength.

"I don't trust the polls," said Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the newest entrant in the Democratic presidential field, on Wednesday became the latest White House hopeful to stump alongside Davis. At a Hollywood rally, Clark urged Californians to reject the recall and retain Davis.

"I'm here to support the effort of Californians to retain the highest standards of democracy in this state," Clark said.

If Davis is ousted Tuesday and a Republican elected to replace him, the four most-populous states in the country -- California, Texas, New York and Florida -- would have Republican governors heading into the 2004 campaign. That would be a symbolic blow for Democrats, but, assorted party strategists insist, no reason for panic.

They noted that statehouse political machines are mostly a thing of the past. They said there would still be plenty of California money to be had, regardless of whom the governor -- or the party's presidential nominee -- turns out to be. They suggested the state's budget headaches would become Schwarzenegger's -- and by extension President Bush's. And they expressed little personal regard for Davis, which might take some of the sting out of his defeat, should it occur.

"Gov. Davis isn't this warm-and-fuzzy character," said one national Democrat who is working aggressively to beat the recall but asked not to be identified, to avoid offending the incumbent. "It's not like a lot of people want to fight for him personally. They don't feel really personally invested."

The Democratic National Committee has helped out some. Under new campaign-finance laws, the party is prohibited from raising money on Davis' behalf. But strategists have met with sympathetic interest groups in Washington and urged them to rally their grass-roots supporters, in California and elsewhere.

DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe has made several appearances around the state to boost Davis, and a top strategist, Ann Lewis, was dispatched several weeks ago to Los Angeles to assist Davis full time. But the brief campaign and odd timing of the election -- just as the presidential contest gets underway -- have hampered the incumbent's ability to summon help.

"Folks are mad about the election, they hope he wins, but they're not putting their money where their mouth is," said David Rosen, a Chicago-based Democratic fund-raiser who has collected between $100,000 and $200,000 nationally to help fight the recall. "It's like walking by a guy being mugged. People want to prevent it from happening, but very few actually jump in and intervene."

Searching for a bright side, Democrats say that if Davis loses they plan to make an issue of California in the same way they rouse the faithful with memories of the Florida recount after the 2000 election.

"It only feeds the perception that the Bush-led Republican Party will do anything to win," asserted Chris Lehane, an anti-recall strategist and former aide to Vice President Al Gore. "It's only going to contribute to a tremendous Democratic voter intensity that is already palpable."

That remains to be seen. Meantime, all sides agree that having a Republican in charge in Sacramento would help Bush and other GOP candidates in one very concrete way: boosting their fund-raising prospects in the No. 1 political donor state in the nation.

"It would be a huge benefit," said Bill Andresen, a Democratic fund-raiser in Washington. "I imagine it would open up additional lines of money for the Republican Party in California."

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