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Commentary | ON THE RECALL / Peter H. King

Putting Off the Inevitable, for Now

September 21, 2003|Peter H. King

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow ...

-- T.S. Eliot,

"The Hollow Men"

This was supposed to be what a friend in the political trade calls "get serious" time. Sixteen days away from a scheduled Oct. 7 election, with absentee ballots being cast and the deadline for voter registration but a day away, this was supposed to be the time when Californians actually began making up their minds for good on how, or if, they intended to vote.

This was supposed to be the time when the recall would begin to seem real even to those who had regarded it mainly as a freak show: Someone, after all, will be governor come Oct. 8, and it won't be the porn queen or the diminutive television actor, and so, who?

Instead, the recall process, in this pivotal period, fell under a shadow of uncertainty. A decision by a three-judge federal panel last Monday to push the election back to March placed an asterisk over the proceedings.

The candidates went through the motions. They held a debate -- minus one large-sized front-runner whose absence was underscored by an empty chair. They made campaign appearances. They drowned the airwaves with commercials and happily slapped one another around.

"You know, I know they kept a chair empty for me," said Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ducked the debate Wednesday in Los Angeles. "But the people that saw the debate said that the fact was that all six chairs were empty."

That line might not parse so well in print, but it drew big laughs Thursday at a press conference in Sacramento -- especially from the battalion of paid political advisors that accompanies the would be Pectorals-in-Chief on his rare public outings.

Still, as the candidates played their parts, they did so to an audience no longer certain whether it was necessary to keep following along, or even whether to stick it out until the end.

For instance, a survey of county registrars by the San Francisco Chronicle found that the flow of absentee ballots, which had been moving at torrential levels, dropped off to a relative "dribble" after the ruling Monday. "I think people think the election has been called off, and it really hasn't," a Marin County official told the newspaper. "It's unbelievable, the falloff."

The consensus among legal experts seems to be that the ruling by three members of the 26-judge U.S. 9th Circuit Court will be overturned -- eventually.

On Friday, in fact, the court as a whole decided to send the matter to an 11-member panel for reconsideration. That hearing will be held Monday afternoon -- apparently these judges don't do weekends. Their ruling will follow whenever they bloody well feel like it -- they are federal judges after all -- but presumably will come with enough time to spare for the losing side to seek redress from the U.S. Supreme Court.

So even if the case moves along lickety-split, the shadow that has fallen over the race will linger for at least a week, and there is no sure way of gauging the impact.

Among recall advocates, the thinking, perhaps wishful, was that a liberal court's intrusion into the campaign would work as a splash of kerosene on the fire of anger that -- along with a rich fellow's $1.7 million -- fueled the effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis in the first place.

Some of them attributed the drop-off in absentee balloting not to confusion caused by the court ruling but rather to uncertainty among conservatives over whether state Sen. Tom McClintock will stay in the race. In other words, the thinking goes, they don't want to cast a vote for their hero, only to have him cave in at the end and endorse Schwarzenegger. After all, the man has promised something like 1,700 times now to campaign to the end.

And there was a sense, perhaps delusional, among the Davis forces that the campaign to reject the recall outright -- Question 1 on the ballot -- had picked up momentum in the last couple of weeks. Their concern was that the pregnant pause created in the federal court might stall their momentum.

"I believe we will beat the recall on Oct. 7," Davis told reporters Friday. "My attitude is, let's just get it over with."

Or as Gen. Custer was said to have shouted as he led the 7th Calvary into the Battle of the Little Bighorn, "Hurrah boys, we've got them."

Peter H. King's column will run twice weekly through the recall election.

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