In the last few weeks, discerning Republicans have come to realize that a formula for ensuring victory in the recall election is at hand. With Tom McClintock and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they have two men -- with albeit different qualities -- who clearly can lead California. So instead of wasting precious energy on the nonsensical death dance of trying to force McClintock out of the race, the GOP should be concentrating on a single goal: creating a win-win proposition by targeting enough firepower on Cruz Bustamante to shove him into third place.
Last week's debate exposed the lieutenant governor as the listless officeholder that he is. Like Barbara Boxer, Bustamante slipped into office as a lightweight with lucky timing -- someone who could never have won statewide office absent a perfect alignment of the political stars with the political calendar.
From his initial entry into the race, Bustamante has provided Republicans with an easy target. He has proposed $8 billion in tax increases, refused to repudiate a racist slogan, given us the laughable watchwords of "tough love" and cynically (and illegally) manipulated campaign finance laws. His nondescript demeanor and persona -- which helped sell him to his colleagues as a nonthreatening Assembly speaker -- hardly meet Central Casting's standards for governor, as was painfully apparent in the debate.
But the internecine bickering in the GOP -- underscored by staged endorsements and hand-wringing over possible split votes -- leaves many activists worried that the principal message is not being delivered: yes on recall and no on Bustamante.
Putting the recall on the back burner during the debate and in our campaigning gave the governor's operatives all the running room they needed. So it's no surprise that Gray Davis' campaign manager now gloats: "We're going to win ... we're on the threshold, and we're going to walk through the door."
Well, there's plenty of time to shut that door. We should:
* Remind voters of Davis' failed leadership. Schwarzenegger's campaign has taken a good first step by airing a commercial that does this, but still, that ad is nowhere nearly strong enough -- a probable result of Schwarzenegger's imprudent declaration that he would "stay positive."
* Make the case against Bustamante. Belatedly coming off the bench, the Republican Governors Assn. has paid for television ads that do this. Party stalwarts here in California ought to replicate that effort in key cable markets and on radio to generate maximum negatives for Bustamante. A steady drip-drip through Oct. 6 that plays off Bustamante's feeble debate showing can still save the day.
* In this final sprint, Schwarzenegger and McClintock should stay out of San Francisco and get out of Los Angeles. They need to drive the vote in high-margin areas -- those places where Davis and Bustamante are the weakest. In 1996, I coined the term California's "political fishhook," taken from the shape of the demographics that run from Chico/Redding and Sacramento south through the Great Valley, out to the Inland Empire, down through San Diego and back up through the conservative ring around Los Angeles in Orange and Ventura counties. In most of these key California counties, Bill Simon defeated Davis last fall by margins ranging from 9% to 31%.
It is in the fishhook where disenchantment with Davis is the highest. Because of intense media coverage, this is one time when old-fashioned stumping can make a difference in triggering motivation and intensity in the heart of moderate-to-conservative California.
Finally, the Republicans need to be prepared for the typical Democratic eleventh-hour spitballs -- the kind fired at Bruce Herschensohn in 1992 (for the sin of taking a date to strip club), Mike Huffington in 1994 (for hiring an undocumented nanny) and Darrell Issa in 1998 (for allegedly misrepresenting his military record). Just because Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer this summer railed against the "puke politics" of Gray Davis doesn't mean that Davis and his assorted thugs will abjure their traditional tactics.
Kenneth L. Khachigian was a senior advisor and strategist for President Reagan and California Gov. George Deukmejian. He advised Darrell Issa's recall campaign before he dropped out and ran Bruce Herschensohn's race for U.S. Senate.