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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Pressure's on Senator to Drop Out of Race, but Why Should He?

September 01, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — Reporters keep asking Sen. Tom McClintock whether he's going to drop out of the race and clear the track for Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he keeps giving them the same answer:

"I'm in this race to the finish. That would be 8 p.m., Oct. 7.... I'm old-fashioned. I believe we should have a campaign first and then let the voters decide who wins. They're perfectly capable.

"What's going on here is the country club set wants to make the decision for the people."

Is there any conceivable chance he'll get out? "None."

"I really don't understand what there is about 'no' [reporters] don't understand."

He adds, with a faint grin: "At the appropriate time, I'll be prepared to accept Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement."

What the Thousand Oaks Republican is not saying is that he's in hog heaven. This is a politician's and an ideologue's paradise. Why would he leave? He has never had so much attention: national television, talk radio, barrels of print.

"He's gotten more TV in the last three weeks than he has in 20 years in politics," says John Stoos, one of his strategists.

This is the big leagues. You don't voluntarily get on a bus headed back down to the bushes.

McClintock has a loud public address system to expound the tax-and-spend causes he always has cared deeply about. At least he has since, as a high school freshman, he came home one day and found his Realtor-mom in tears because she'd miscalculated her tax and was about to forfeit to the IRS a year's savings from commissions.

"That was a searing experience," he says. "It made a big impression."

McClintock is becoming the voice of conservatism in California -- not social conservatism (abortion, gays, guns), although he's conservative on those things too, but on fiscal conservatism, which is closer to the mainstream. And by fate, his issue now is high on voters' minds.

He's credible and is taken seriously, even if a longshot to replace the recall-threatened Gov. Gray Davis.

McClintock, 47, a trim, 6-foot-1 bookworm who loves to quote the Federalist Papers, is both an articulate writer (mostly op-ed pieces) and orator who seldom passes up a chance to debate money matters. He understands the subject, and people understand him. He's one politician who won't try to fuzz up an issue or cower from it.

He has never voted for a tax increase. Indeed, he was one of a group of Assembly Republican "cavemen" whom then-Gov. Pete Wilson called "irrelevant" -- modified by an obscenity -- for refusing to consider a tax hike in budget bargaining.

Whatever he was then, McClintock has become plenty relevant since. Last year, although outspent 5 to 1, he came within three-tenths of 1% of beating Democrat Steve Westly for state controller, attracting more votes than any other Republican on the ballot.

A recent Times poll showed him running third in the governor's race with 12%, behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, 35%, and Schwarzenegger, 22%. Republicans Peter Ueberroth and Bill Simon split 13%.

Simon dropped out. Schwarzenegger said it would help him and the GOP if Ueberroth and McClintock also took a hike. Few would be surprised if Ueberroth did. He's not clicking. But McClintock's a wild card, and party pols are divided.

If McClintock quit running, there'd be more Republican votes for Schwarzenegger against Bustamante. But Schwarzenegger isn't exactly wowing voters with his platitudes. And just how many raunchy, girlie mag interviews with the actor are there to dust off?

GOP consultant Sal Russo, one of the recall instigators, says McClintock "can't play the spoiler role. He'll squander the opportunity for us to win the governorship.... This is a unique election where only people who can win should be in."

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book, which analyzes campaigns, calls McClintock "the Ralph Nader of this race." Nader, the Green, won 97,488 Florida votes in the 2000 presidential race, depriving Democrat Al Gore of the 538 he needed to beat Republican George W. Bush.

"If Bustamante is elected governor, Republicans will be utterly destroyed," Quinn says. "They would be laughed at and scorned. It would be an incredible boost for Democrats nationally."

Perhaps, says Target publisher Allan Hoffenblum, but "if McClintock is within reach of Arnold, it means the Schwarzenegger camp is so bad, who cares what McClintock does!"

Moreover, says GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, McClintock's "not making a fool of himself. He can say, 'I'm running a principled race. Why should I get out? I've paid my dues. What's Arnold's claim on the office?' "

What McClintock does say is that "I'm definitely a very strong gravitational pull on Arnold's political philosophy" -- pulling it to the right. But, he adds, "I'm very concerned about the direction he would take California, given his [former Wilson] advisors and his reluctance to forthrightly answer simple questions about simple policies."

Before anybody asks McClintock to step aside, Schwarzenegger should prove he can run without stumbling.

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