WASHINGTON — Arnold Schwarzenegger's decisive win in the gubernatorial recall election may encourage the White House to more seriously contest California in next year's presidential election, but the state likely will remain a difficult challenge for President Bush to win, senior Republican political operatives say.
The victory "improves the calculus on California," said one top GOP strategist familiar with thinking in the White House. "You have a governor who could be a center of enthusiasm and energy for the party. Electing a Republican governor is a big, important thing."
Added another GOP strategist close to Bush's reelection effort: "In a tight national race, California is problematic. But what happened Tuesday does make it a question mark about whether to put it on the list [of targeted states] in a way you wouldn't before."
Democrats, in contrast, believe that Schwarzenegger's victory doesn't change the underlying partisan balance in a state that has provided huge margins to their party's presidential nominee in each of the last three elections. They note that Bush's position on a range of social issues differs with the majority of state voters.
And many Democrats, as well as some independent analysts, believe the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis may weaken the president's position in the state by allowing anger over the faltering California economy to shift from Davis to Bush.
"If the economy doesn't turn around and our federal and state deficit continue to show signs of not coming under control, that kind of voter anger is going to be transferred from one place to the next," says Mark Baldassare, a public opinion analyst at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Still, Republicans believe Schwarzenegger's win -- the biggest victory for the GOP in the state since 1994 -- could energize the party and improve its image in ways that can benefit Bush in 2004.
Though the White House kept its distance from the recall process, Republican insiders say they expect Schwarzenegger will appear with Bush when the president campaigns and raises money in Fresno, Riverside and San Bernardino next week.
"There's no question that they will be together," said a senior aide to the Bush campaign.
Republicans see practical advantages for Bush in Schwarzenegger's victory and intriguing signs of potentially shifting voter attitudes.
The tangible benefits are formidable: a sitting governor provides an instant organization for a state political campaign, and should further improve Bush's already formidable fund-raising in California. That should mean more money for the state GOP to conduct voter registration and mobilization drives next year.
"The party will be well-funded from here on out because you have a Republican governor," said Mindy Tucker, the Bush reelection campaign's California representative.
Schwarzenegger signaled Wednesday that his political help wouldn't be cost-free. At a news conference, he said, "I plan on asking [the president] for ... a lot of favors" as he seeks to implement his agenda.
In broader terms, after nearly a decade of Republican retreat in the state, Schwarzenegger should provide a jolt of energy into GOP ranks -- and could also present a more positive image for the party with swing voters if he's perceived as a success in office.
Referring to the combined vote for Schwarzenegger and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, the senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said: "There is something going on out there when 61% of the people vote for someone with Republican behind their name. The Democratic label has been besmirched by Davis in California and that has made it easier for people to vote Republican."
Some Republican analysts were particularly intrigued by the significant defection Davis suffered among Democrats, especially working-class voters reminiscent of the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" who crossed party lines to support Ronald Reagan.
According to Times exit polling, 32% of Democrats without a college degree and 36% of Democrats who consider themselves moderate or conservative voted to recall Davis. Fully 45% of Latinos voted for the recall. Despite a heavy push on his behalf from organized labor, Davis also lost the votes of 48% of voters from union households.
Issues of national security and strength might give Bush openings to those same voters in 2004, some strategists in both parties believe.
Particularly worrisome for Democrats may have been the role that anger over the increase in the state car tax played in those blue-collar defections. With all of the Democratic presidential candidates calling for rollbacks of some of the tax cuts Bush has pushed into law, that may be a warning that many voters, during this period of economic squeeze, are sensitive to a rising tax bill.
"The significance of the car tax in the race ought to raise warning signals for every Democrat," said the senior GOP strategist.