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Getting the Bustamante Butterflies

Democrats fear the lieutenant governor's campaign has stalled, with no spark in sight.

September 27, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

After a lackluster performance in this week's debate and a rash of stories that highlighted criticism of his fund-raising, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante faces a growing perception that his campaign has stalled, according to fellow Democrats and independent analysts.

With 10 days left until the Oct. 7 election, Bustamante "has to be much more public and ... build some momentum for his candidacy," said Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. "He did that on the front end, but now he's been more quiet. And in order to ensure Democratic turnout, it's incumbent for him to get out and build it."

Among Democratic leaders and constituency groups, anxiety has begun to take hold that Bustamante's campaign is fumbling its opportunities, said a Democratic official with ties to both the lieutenant governor and Gov. Gray Davis who spoke on condition that he not be named.

"People are almost cringing sometimes, saying, 'He's got to be stronger,' " the official said.

Bustamante's political strategist, Richie Ross, said he was confident about the state of the campaign and dismissed the worries.

"People can have as much consternation as they want," he said. "I'm not a handwringer."

But since entering the race in August, Bustamante has been unable to climb above 30% in public opinion polls, putting him neck and neck with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that many Democrats remain ambivalent about the lieutenant governor, with just 49% saying they plan to vote for him.

"The challenge is to develop a degree of momentum, and with 10 days out it's awfully difficult," said David Provost, a political science professor at Cal State Fresno and the author of a college textbook on California politics.

Bustamante has not been helped by the compressed recall time frame, which has not allowed him to build a case for his candidacy.

"He's had to define himself in one of the most volatile political environments in California history," said Ben Austin, a Democratic political operative who is close to former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, but is now working to defeat the recall. "It's certainly an uphill battle for a well-oiled campaign, and even steeper challenge for a campaign some perceive as sputtering."

Some Democrats had hoped that Wednesday's widely televised debate would help Bustamante. Instead, party strategists have spent the last two days criticizing his performance.

"I think he could have done a little better," Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic party, said the morning after the debate on NBC's "Today Show."

"I think he should have been a little more aggressive in terms of touting his own values and principles and what he's been able to achieve."

Others outside the party ranks were blunter. "He was condescending and dismissive," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national Republican Party strategist. "He should have remembered that that approach didn't work well for Al Gore."

In particular, Pitney pointed to Bustamante's exchanges with Arianna Huffington, in which he repeated, "Yes Arianna, yes Arianna," in a long-suffering tone as she spoke.

The loss of that opportunity could be a particular problem for Bustamante because he has had relatively few public appearances.

While Davis and Schwarzenegger have filled their schedules with rallies and forums, and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) has kept busy with back-to-back radio interviews, Bustamante has limited his public appearances to an average of just one event a day.

After the debate, Bustamante was the only candidate to skip the chance to talk with the approximately 300 reporters covering the forum. Instead, he attended a debate-watching reception with donors to his campaign. On Friday, he attended a series of fund-raisers and had no public events.

That underlines one of Bustamante's largest hurdles in the campaign -- his financial disadvantage. Running against Schwarzenegger, a multimillionaire, the lieutenant governor has devoted most of his time to raising money, at the expense of public events.

Ross noted that the lieutenant governor had a news conference Thursday to announce support for financial grants for reservists and has two public events scheduled for today in southeast Los Angeles County.

"I don't know what else one does when we're at it 19 hours a day," he said.

But Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn., said Bustamante could benefit from more public exposure.

"I think Cruz needs to get out there and let people see him," she said. "We know that he's very good on the issues.... He just needs to convey that to the people."

Meanwhile, Bustamante's fund-raising itself has dominated the news of his candidacy, mostly to his detriment. To get around restrictions that limit campaign donations to $21,200, he encouraged donors, the largest of which are Indian tribes, to give unlimited amounts to a committee set up before the rules took effect.

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