Robert Novak

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."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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