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Props. 57, 58 Big Items in Homestretch

With little drama in the presidential primary or Senate race, bond and budget initiatives take spotlight ahead of vote.

March 02, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Five months after irascible Californians fired their governor, millions return to the polls today for presidential, U.S. Senate and other primaries, along with statewide votes on school bonds and proposed remedies for the fiscal crisis.

With no sign of a competitive presidential primary in California, the leading Democratic contenders ignored it on Monday, dashing instead across three other states that vote today: Ohio, Maryland and Georgia.

Dominating the campaign's final day in California were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's two budget measures, Propositions 57 and 58. The Republican governor campaigned for them at a bustling Los Angeles coffee shop, the Pantry, where he passed out "Yes on 57 and 58" bumper stickers to customers eating bacon and eggs.

"Can I count on you?" he called to waiters and cooks who nodded yes from behind the breakfast counter.

Later, Schwarzenegger returned to a favorite campaign venue, NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," to plug the measures one last time.

Critics of the ballot measures countered Schwarzenegger throughout the day on less glamorous programs, such as the Inga Barks radio show on KERN-AM (1410) in Bakersfield. The Barks show was part of separate media offensives against Propositions 57 and 58 by state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) and state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

"You cannot borrow your way out of debt," McClintock said, denouncing the Proposition 57 proposal to borrow up to $15 billion to balance the state budget. "It is an impossibility."

Most of the debt would refinance borrowing approved under Schwarzenegger's ousted Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis. The rest -- about $4 billion, according to the nonpartisan state legislative analyst's office -- would be new debt to cover current and future budget shortfalls.

With the budget measures soaking up the bulk of attention in the run-up to today's election -- and no clashing presidential contests here -- the secretary of state's office has projected a turnout of just 43% of the state's 15 million registered voters. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

The election will be California's first to eliminate punch-card machines like those that went awry in the Florida presidential race in 2000, with a final batch of California counties switching to optical-scan or touch-screen voting.

"This is our first no-chad election," said Doug Stone, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.

On the ballot are scores of congressional and legislative primaries, along with scattered local contests, from the San Diego mayoral election to the Los Angeles County district attorney's race. A $3.9-billion school bond proposal, Measure R, is also up for a vote in Los Angeles County.

For the statewide races, strategists have struggled for months to figure out which voters might turn out in large numbers. A competitive presidential primary could have drawn many Democrats to the polls, and a highly visible Republican U.S. Senate race could have triggered a high GOP turnout. In the end, neither of those came to pass.

In the presidential race, California polls have found Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts heavily favored over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Also running are Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. The ballot will also list five Democrats who have dropped out of the race.

In the Senate race, 10 Republicans are vying for the nomination to challenge Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer in November.

The only one who has won statewide office before is former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who campaigned Monday in Burbank and San Diego. Marking the 10th anniversary of the three-strikes mandatory-sentencing law he sponsored in the Assembly, Jones appeared with former Gov. Pete Wilson at Burbank police headquarters.

"I want the author of three strikes to represent us in the Senate," said Wilson, who had previously announced his endorsement.

The other main contenders are former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian.

Campaigning in San Diego, Kaloogian continued stressing his opposition to gay marriage, filing paperwork to launch a recall drive against state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat. Kaloogian accuses him of failing to act quickly enough to stop same-sex weddings in San Francisco.

Boxer, who hoped to launch her general-election campaign tonight at a Los Angeles hotel, was stuck in Washington for Senate votes on Monday -- and unsure whether she could return today in time for the event. Her strategist, Roy Behr, said every contender for the GOP nomination was "way to the right of California's mainstream," signaling a pointed campaign ahead.

Polls have found Jones well ahead of his GOP rivals, but with many voters waiting until the closing days of the race to make up their minds.

"When undecided is beating the leading candidate, you probably ought to be a little cautious in making predictions," Behr said.

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