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A Phone Call in Need of Instant Replay

September 12, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Tom McClintock took a call Wednesday from powerful Republican Congressman Dan Burton, asking him to clear the GOP field for Arnold Schwarzenegger by pulling out of the race.

What happened next is a matter of dispute.

McClintock did not identify Burton by name, but he said in an interview later that day that he had talked to a congressman about the campaign. After summarizing for the lawmaker Schwarzenegger's positions on various issues, McClintock said, he had won a convert.

"You're doing the right thing," he quoted the congressman as saying.

But Burton, an Indiana Republican, came forward Thursday to say he had placed the call -- and to dispute any suggestion that he had told McClintock that he should remain a candidate.

Burton said he had been unwavering in urging McClintock to step aside so that a Republican would stand the best chance of winning the Oct. 7 election. He said he had not left any misimpressions that he wanted McClintock to stay in the race.

"I never said that, and I don't see how he could have misunderstood," Burton said. "I was trying to be nice to him and diplomatic.... But the whole purpose of my call -- and it was clear from the beginning -- was to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger is ahead, and it looks like he's going to stay ahead, and I hope the party rallies around him and I hope, at the right time, you'll get out of the race and support him. That was the tenor of my call and there was no doubt about that."

Burton, one of the more conservative members of Congress, also said McClintock had seemed to suggest that it would be acceptable for a Democrat to hold the governor's office, because he might create a clamor for a Republican in 2006.

He said McClintock had drawn a historical parallel to the 1980 presidential election, when Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, en route to a two-term presidency.

"I was saying I hated to see the Democrats and especially Gray Davis keep control, and Bustamante may want to give California back to Mexico -- I said that tongue in cheek," Burton said, referring to the incumbent Davis and to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. "And he said we had four years of Jimmy Carter and eight years of Ronald Reagan and that was a fair exchange. And the implication was maybe that leaving the Democrats in would show that they can't govern properly."

McClintock, however, insisted that Burton in his phone call "withdrew his concerns" that Republicans in the race "were dividing the vote."

"He said, 'Never mind. I understand now. And pardon me for butting into California politics.' " McClintock said.

The state senator also denied that he was embracing a strategy in which a failed Democratic governor would create a groundswell for a Republican.

Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.

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