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White House Keeping Its Distance From Thorny Recall

A split vote may aid the Democrats, but intervening could be more costly, GOP fears.

September 12, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With concerns that intervention could create more problems than it solves, the White House appears to be remaining hands-off in the California gubernatorial recall, even as the Republican field narrows to just two leading contenders, GOP sources say.

In Washington and California, many Republican leaders are growing concerned that even if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled, the Democrats will retain the office if both actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock remain in the race, splitting the Republican vote and handing victory to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Despite the concerns, the White House and the Republican National Committee have continued to steer clear of any direct effort to force out McClintock, who is running behind Schwarzenegger in the polls, GOP sources say.

"I haven't gotten any sense that we are participating in it," said one GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking. "We are rightly not engaging in it, and this thing is going to have to play itself out without any opinion from us."

Added Rep. David Dreier (R-Glendora), a top Schwarzenegger supporter: "I've talked to the president about this; I've talked to Karl Rove [President Bush's chief political strategist]. I've made very clear that staying out of this is the right thing for them to do, and they totally agree."

The White House hesitation reflects several factors: fear of handing Davis ammunition for his effort to paint the recall as a Republican "power grab," reluctance to antagonize conservatives by undercutting McClintock, and the ongoing debate among some GOP strategists over whether Bush would benefit from the election of a Republican governor in the state.

"There's still a strong belief in some people's minds that they would rather have a Democrat dealing with" the state's problems, said one GOP lobbyist close to the White House.

Even as the White House stands back, some national conservative leaders are quietly maneuvering to consolidate support for Schwarzenegger and increase pressure on McClintock to leave the race.

At the state GOP convention in Los Angeles this weekend, Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a leading conservative political action committee, is to meet with Schwarzenegger. Moore's intent is to press the actor to adopt a more explicitly conservative economic agenda and harden his opposition to new taxes -- steps Moore said could lead his group and other national conservative organizations to endorse Schwarzenegger and publicly encourage McClintock to withdraw.

The hope of Moore and some other national conservative leaders, such as anti-tax activist Grover G. Norquist, is that if Schwarzenegger embraces enough of McClintock's small-government agenda, the state senator may decide to step aside.

"Arnold ... still has not done enough and said enough of his plan on the economy to make conservatives like me feel comfortable," Moore said. "But if Arnold moves far enough to the right on economic issues

So far, McClintock has given no indication that he's open to such a deal; he has said that he's in the race to the end.

John Stoos, McClintock's deputy campaign director, said the candidate is feeling no pressure from Washington to change that position. As recently as Thursday, Stoos said, he had received word from California GOP officials that the White House was "officially neutral" on the race.

The campaign, Stoos said, has been told that the White House "has assessed the situation and sees no role to play."

From the start, the California recall has presented the White House and other national Republican leaders with a complex set of calculations.

On the one hand, many Republicans have been intrigued by the possibility of capturing the governorship in the nation's largest state, which Democrats have dominated politically since the mid-1990s. That excitement surged when Schwarzenegger unexpectedly joined the race last month. Some national GOP leaders see the actor's entry as an opportunity to reconfigure the party's image in California into a more moderate one.

But other strategists, including some close to the White House and the Republican National Committee, have worried about potential aftershocks from the recall. They have expressed concerns that even if Davis is recalled and replaced by a Republican, the new governor could be tarnished by the economic problems facing the state and become a drag on Bush's effort to win California in 2004.

Strategists with that view believe Bush will benefit more in the state if the Democratic presidential nominee is forced to associate with a weakened Davis still struggling with a large budget deficit. "From the Republican perspective, the analogy is you wouldn't have wanted Jimmy Carter to have been recalled [as president] in 1978," said the GOP strategist close to the White House.

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