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GOP Senate Leader Stays on Sidelines

Jim Brulte, Bush's point man for 2004, denies that he's helping narrow the field to boost Republican odds.

September 12, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — During California's budget crisis, he played a leading role in one of the state's most tortuous dramas. But in the state's latest act, the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte has been nearly invisible, far removed from the spotlight.

That's exactly how Brulte likes it.

For the most part, he has been little more than an interested observer who has yet to endorse a candidate and only reluctantly voiced support for the recall weeks after it qualified for the ballot. The Republican from Rancho Cucamonga said he has steered clear of the recall campaign to focus his attention on the bills and policy issues stacking up in the final days of the Legislature's session.

"Believe it or not, I've spent the last two weeks dealing with legislation," Brulte said during a break from a harried Senate session this week.

But some Democratic leaders don't buy it. They suggest that, as one of the state's most powerful Republicans, Brulte has had a hand in directing the campaign from behind the scenes. Some say Brulte has pressured some Republican gubernatorial candidates to drop out to reduce the chance that they will split the vote -- a charge Brulte denies.

"The mob bosses are very seldom seen making a hit," said California Democratic Party campaign advisor Bob Mulholland, who contends Brulte is "involved in this up to his neck."

Brulte has said publicly that the Republican Party must unite behind one candidate or risk splitting the vote and giving Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only major Democratic candidate, the post if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled. But Brulte said he hasn't told anyone to bow out. He said he plans to watch the campaign a while longer before he decides whether to intervene.

"At some point, the nature of my private comments to the [candidates] may change, but we are not at that point," he said.

Peter V. Ueberroth and a representative for businessman Bill Simon Jr. said neither Brulte nor anyone else pressured them to drop out of the race. State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who is trailing actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the polls, said Brulte has never suggested he quit.

One theory among party advisors and academics to explain Brulte's low profile is because he is the Republican Party's point man for President Bush's effort to carry California next year.

"The perception that [Brulte] is involved in the recall would give the impression that the White House is involved in the recall, and I don't think he wants that," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the USC School of Policy Planning and Development.

Another theory is that Brulte is staying out of the recall campaign so that he can come away unsullied by the circus atmosphere and thus be in a better position to help Bush next year.

"He will be the only one who won't be tainted by the recall mess," said K.B. Forbes, a GOP strategist who worked for Simon before he quit the race. "It's a smart position."

Brulte said he has heard all of the theories and charges. He shrugged them off as minor annoyances: "I tried to help Bush win in 2000 and I intend to help him win California in 2004, and the recall has nothing to do with that."

Brulte argues that having a weakened Davis or a new Republican governor in office won't change Bush's chances of winning California's 55 electoral votes in 2004. He noted that during the 2000 election, the governors' party affiliations made little difference in which states Bush won.

"Anybody who suggests they know what the recall's impact will be on the presidential election is either a prophet or pontificator."

David Gilliard, campaign consultant for the Rescue California recall organization, said he has seen no evidence that Brulte has been working on the recall campaign behind the scenes. Gilliard said he believes Brulte has been focused on the state budget and is waiting to see how the campaign plays out.

"Jim Brulte is pretty cautious and is waiting for the time and place to enter into this and make his influence felt," he said.

That occasion may be this weekend during the GOP's semiannual convention in Los Angeles. Most Republican strategists believe McClintock will be under pressure to drop out and throw his support behind Schwarzenegger, who is leading McClintock in the polls. Brulte said he plans to attend the event but insisted his role will be minimal.

His low-profile role is in contrast to his position during July's budget crisis.

During negotiations, he was a member of the "big five," a group of legislative leaders who spent days haggling with Davis over ways to close a $38-billion shortfall. Brulte steamed Democratic leaders by vowing to campaign to unseat any Republican lawmaker who voted for a tax increase to close the gap.

It was only after the budget was signed that Brulte voiced support for the recall. He said endorsing the recall while trying to negotiate with Davis would have jeopardized any budget agreement.

"Although I personally like Gov. Davis, I find his policies to be wanting," Brulte said this week at the Capitol as lawmakers scrambled around him to vote on the session's final bills. "I believe he is the most responsible for the largest budget deficit in the history of California."

Brulte also blames Davis for waiting too long to address the energy crisis. He contends Davis continues to give voters reason to recall him. Brulte criticized Davis for signing a bill that will allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

"Rather than starting to correct mistakes that the governor has made, he is accelerating the number of mistakes he is making," Brulte said.

Despite his support for the recall, Brulte said he had no plans to campaign.

"You have to let things shake out," he said. "There has to be more data available."

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