Governor No

Posted: May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Even partisans who oppose the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis are fascinated at the possibilities: With no primary, a cheaper price tag on campaigns and the likelihood that (if the governor were recalled) a candidate could win with as little as 20 percent of the vote, a recall would turn California into a political petri dish.

"It's going to be great theater," noted David Gilliard, the GOP political consultant running Rescue California, the latest addition to the recall movement and largely funded by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

For what it's worth, conventional wisdom says that if Republicans can raise up to $2 million, they'll get the 897,158 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot -- and once recall is on the ballot, voters will give Davis the boot.

The latest Field poll found that two-thirds of state voters don't like the governor. And the mechanics work against him: On the very day voters go to the polls to vote up or down on Davis, they also vote on his possible replacement. By law, Davis can't run to replace himself.

Top Demo officials may say they oppose a recall "on principle." That's nice. That principle will go bye-bye because Democrats have to run to retain the state's top office.

I almost felt like a sadist asking Roger Salazar, who works for the Davis machine, about possible Democratic candidates. Earning his pay, Salazar insisted -- with a straight face -- that no Dem will run because "by putting one on the ballot, you concede the loss."

But then, there's no Democrat on the ballot, right?

Wrong, Salazar argued. "His name is on the ballot as 'no.'"

Bravo for the performance, but the only real question is how many Democrats will run. (One wag told me the field is likely to have so many Demos it will look like a race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.) The names you see on cocktail napkins in Sacto watering holes -- despite the public protestations -- start with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

The wild card is Sen. Dianne Feinstein. If she runs and wins, DiFi names her own replacement.

They've all got to be tempted. And, as the race is expected to last fewer than 90 days, it would present a bargain run for governor -- Gilliard estimated the tab as between $10 million and $20 million.

I've opposed the recall because it looks like GOP sour grapes and I don't think the Republican Party should spend its time and money getting Angelides or Feinstein elected governor -- and ready to run in 2006 as the incumbent.

Gilliard said he thinks a Republican would win. Issa, he noted, could become a GOP hero for kick-starting the flagging recall effort.

For that, Dems already are slinging mud at Issa. "Why does Darrell Issa want to be governor? So he can grant himself pardons," laughed state Democratic bad boy Bob Mulholland. Has Issa been convicted of a crime? "I have no idea," Mulholland replied. Witness the birth of a nasty smear campaign.

Everybody but his consultants wants former Davis rival Bill Simon out of the race. Other maybes are former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, former Secretary of State Bill Jones and state Sen. Tom McClintock.

The GOP wild card is Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Ah-nold is thinking of running for governor in 2006, he'd be insane not to run now -- and skip an expensive and risky GOP primary. It's hard to imagine the Terminator not getting a quarter of the vote.

Gilliard believes the GOP will benefit from the "drop-off factor." In two 1995 Assembly recalls, a chunk of those who voted to recall skipped voting on a replacement.

Gilliard added, "Ultimately, if President Bush decided he wanted to interject himself into this, he could call people and say, 'Here's our candidate; clear the field.'"

When you lay the pieces on a game board, it's great sport. Still, it's not clear if anyone can win the game, if it's known as Sore Loser.