WASHINGTON -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's late decision to jump into the California recall election was made after weekend meetings to plan what was supposed to be a campaign for governor by Richard Riordan. The two men, non-conservatives and only nominal Republicans, are friends and political allies. But the multi-millionaire movie actor was disturbed by the demeanor of the multi-millionaire former mayor of Los Angeles.
As Schwarzenegger later related to associates, he was unpleasantly surprised by his old friend. In their private conversation, the 73-year-old Riordan duplicated his shaky performance in losing the 2002 Republican primary for governor. To Schwarzenegger, Riordan seemed so confused and disorganized he could not possibly be elected governor. That was the trigger to create the state's current uproarious scene, casting a long shadow on national politics.
Behind the pandemonium of candidates by the hundreds, the outlook for the Oct. 7 election is seen clearly within both political parties. Gov. Gray Davis, still railing against the recall, seems doomed as the first California governor removed in mid-term by the voters. The outcome then becomes a choice between two candidates, neither of which could win his own party's primary: self-styled "moderate" Republican Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. The advantages of Hollywood's Terminator suggest an unanticipated windfall for George W. Bush.
It is no secret that President Bush's political advisers were cool to recalling Davis. They relished the thought of the universally disliked governor twisting in the wind throughout 2004, helping Bush win in a state that surely would smother Democratic presidential hopes. But that delicious prospect has disappeared. The question is: who will replace Davis?
Bustamante as governor would not be good news for Bush. As a Democrat in the governor's chair, he would inherit Davis's fiscal problems but not his personal baggage. Accordingly, the election of a Republican Oct. 7 suddenly becomes a Bush priority. Nobody gives 2002 nominee Bill Simon a prayer, and State Sen. Tom McClintock is a very dark horse. That is why, on the day after Schwarzenegger nudged aside Riordan to become a candidate, the president declared of the five-time Mr. Universe: "I think he'd make a good governor."
The identity of the only possible Democratic replacement for Davis would seem to indicate nobody at the wheel in either party. Bustamante is an overweight, uninspiring career politician who has been in the right place at the right time during a charmed career. He has ended up as the most visible if not the most magnetic representative of California's growing Hispanic population. More attractive Democratic hopefuls for governor stayed out, pressured by Davis's loyalists in organized labor (though the school teachers started pushing for an alternative Democrat on the ticket).
Bustamante broke the line set by the governor, Democratic Chairman Art Torres and the unions to save Davis by keeping credible Democrats off the ballot. He had decided to run even before Schwarzenegger's surprise announcement. But it seemed Bustamante's lifelong good fortune would continue and his principal opponent would be Dick Riordan, who long ago had left his best game behind him.
Schwarzenegger changed all that. Bustamante certainly will not win on charisma, but he has many advantages: the only substantial Democrat in the field, his Latin ethnicity, and perhaps most important, the title "lieutenant governor" on the ballot.
This rare opportunity for a little known political lifer to become governor depends, ironically, on ability of conservative Republicans to tear down Schwarzenegger as an untrue believer. Simon and McClintock have begun the assault, and the news media immediately began pressing the new candidate to detail his positions. Longtime Democratic hit man Bob Mulholland talked about shooting "real bullets" at Schwarzenegger (though State Chairman Torres said he cautioned him against "using that word again").
The Republican establishment in Washington clearly hopes the Terminator can deflect those bullets. Schwarzenegger's posture as a pro-business social liberal is similar to what former Gov. Pete Wilson advocated as the last Republican elected to high office in California (in 1994). No genuine conservative has been elected in California since Ronald Reagan in 1970. Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be much of a Republican and not conservative at all, but George W. Bush welcomes anybody invigorating a comatose California GOP.