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Commentary | ON THE RECALL By Peter H. King

A Good Decision ... Unless It Isn't

September 17, 2003|Peter H. King | Peter H. King's column will run twice weekly through the recall election.

As Nelson Algren almost advised: Never shoot pool with a guy named Pops; never eat at a place called Mom's; never play cards with a man named Doc -- and never try to anticipate what the federal courts will do.

A careful review of 14 tons of instant analysis generated by the decision to push back California's recall election yields the following consensus:

The full U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals almost certainly will overrule the three-judge panel, unless it doesn't.

Barring that, the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and set things right, unless it won't.

Moving the recall election back to March could be the best development possible for Gov. Gray Davis -- unless, of course, it turns out to be the worst.

Candidate Schwarzenegger will have time to introduce the real Arnold to the California public -- which could well be his undoing.

And so on, down the line.

That's been the great thing about this recall fiasco from the start. Nobody really knows what they are talking about, which allows everybody to say almost anything and not be called on it.

For would-be experts, this has been a shootout in the dark. Only when the lights come on, after the election, will it be determined who, if anybody, actually hit anything. Give me a minute now while I reload....

Here's the upbeat view of the latest dipsy-doo on the road to recall: By delaying the election, the three amigos of the 9th Circuit actually did many Californians a favor -- that is, if their ruling holds up, which the experts say can't happen, unless it does.

Yes, it sounds awful at first -- five more months of lame Terminator laugh lines from Schwarzenegger, five more months of getting to know Davis' soft side, five more months of Cruz Bustamante shaking down every last slot mechanic and blackjack dealer on the reservation.

On the other hand -- to employ the most useful phrase on the beat -- the closer Oct. 7 loomed, the more obvious it became that, for many Californians, this was going to be no easy march into the voting booth.

The recall was unfolding as equal-opportunity equivocation, presenting hard choices for voters of all political flavors.

For conservatives, there was the question of how many principles they would sacrifice in order to put a Republican, any Republican, in the governor's office. Was it enough that Schwarzenegger, the favorite of the party leadership, at least talked the talk of a fiscal conservative?

Could they overlook his admitted inhaling and exhaling and all the rest, his boastful tale of gang sex in the gym, his positions on abortion, gun control and other issues that run counter to the core beliefs of social conservatives?

Or should they stick by state Sen. Tom McClintock, the only candidate showing any lift in the polls? McClintock, after all, was one of them -- "our North Star," as one California conservative put it.

Still, the accepted calculus was that a vote given to McClintock would be a vote taken from Schwarzenegger, and thus found money for Democrat Bustamante -- so what was a good Republican conservative to do?

Not that the choices were any better for Democrats.

Davis did not become unpopular through some feat of partisan trickery. He earned his unpopularity -- not so much by making tough decisions, as he would prefer to see it, but rather by avoiding them. And with Oct. 7 drawing close, there seemed to be many Democrats who deep down would not mind seeing him walk the political plank.

But then what?

Bustamante?

Thus far, the sad-eyed sage of the San Joaquin has not exactly caught fire. He is not, as they say, trending well. In fact, Bustamante seems to have spent most of his time raising campaign money that he is not allowed to keep, a curious hobby.

So for Democrats the central question as decision time neared appeared to be whether to hold their noses, once again, and retain Davis -- or risk letting the Republicans steal into the governor's office. To borrow Republican consultant Dan Schnur's line, "It's sort of like picking your favorite Menendez brother."

At least now, because of three judges' quaint notion that, in an election, all votes ought to be counted, there might be more time to sort through all this, time to regroup and maybe even to find a legal way to sneak a few more candidates into the tent. Indeed, one legal analysis in play is that moving the election to March means the filing period for candidates must be reopened.

Anybody for Dianne Feinstein versus Richard Riordan?

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