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California Delay Deepens Already Bitter National Gulf

September 18, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Take a disputed election and toss in a controversial court decision and suddenly California looks an awful lot like Florida.

The recall vote, with its eccentric cast of characters, has been a source of great mirth to many outsiders looking in. But with Monday's move to delay the Oct. 7 election, the race has suddenly been converted from a curiosity into a national rallying cry for partisans on both sides.

To Republicans, the decision underscores the wanton will of the activist judges they rail against, suggesting judicial appointments could become a higher-profile issue in next year's presidential campaign.

To Democrats, the mere thought of the Supreme Court stepping into yet another election fight is enough to incite outrage and, potentially, boost voter turnout next year.

The result is more partisan division, a bitterness that may spill over to the 2004 contest and open a gulf even deeper than the one that produced the last 50-50 presidential election.

"The truth is, we're seeing the increased polarization of American politics manifest itself very dramatically in this recall," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who lives in Los Angeles and works for Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a presidential hopeful from Missouri.

"There's been a whole series of events that cause people to say, 'I'm on this team. I'm not even going to look at the other team.' "

Unlike the aftermath in Florida, it is no longer just Democrats accusing their opponents of stop-at-nothing treachery.

After Monday's decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Republicans across the country are seething as well, using some of the very same language heard from Democrats more than 2 1/2 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to end the Florida vote count, putting George W. Bush in the White House.

"There's a feeling that liberals will do anything to win," said Stephen Moore, a conservative activist in Washington. "They're relying on these three rogue judges to overturn and essentially take the ballot away from voters."

As Republicans hastened to point out, the judges who ordered the postponement were all appointed by Democratic presidents.

"The action of the 9th Circuit is just another brick in the edifice of judicial overreaching that conservatives complain about," said William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard magazine and a prominent voice in conservative circles.

"The 9th Circuit is just another piece of evidence for why it matters who is president with the power to appoint federal judges."

However, while many Republicans have been quick to voice outrage, the response from the White House has been notably muted.

President Bush and his political lieutenants have steered clear of the recall from the start -- at least publicly -- and lately have carefully avoided taking sides in the fight between actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, the main Republicans in the race to succeed Davis.

Asked for two days running about the 9th Circuit decision, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: "You know our position on that. That's a matter for the state of California."

A GOP consultant with close ties to the White House said Bush strategists "have a tremendous amount of discomfort with the situation," especially after their unsuccessful attempt last year to promote former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan over another conservative, Bill Simon Jr., in the Republican governor's race.

"They can't play favorites," said the consultant, who requested anonymity to preserve his relations with the White House. "While on the one hand they might say the most electable candidate is Schwarzenegger, they are scared to death of doing anything that gets them crossways with the most conservative elements of the party."

Indeed, many party activists are keeping a close watch on California.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a key Bush administration ally, has criticized Schwarzenegger for refusing to sign an explicit no-new-taxes pledge.

The actor's refusal, Norquist wrote this week in the Washington Post, has fueled McClintock's success and split the Republican vote, allowing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to sustain a lead in polls.

"A Republican cannot be elected and govern successfully," Norquist said, "without staking out an unequivocal anti-tax-hike position."

Other activists are carefully watching to see if Monday's decision halting the Oct. 7 vote is overturned, either by the full 9th Circuit, which is considering whether to order a rehearing of the case, or the U.S. Supreme Court.

"If the courts delay this, or the recall never happens, you will have such an infuriated conservative voter base they will strike out at Democrats across the board," said Moore, whose conservative Club for Growth has emerged as an important force in Republican politics.

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