Cat fight

Posted: Jul 13, 2003 12:00 AM

There is something harder than herding cats -- herding Republicans. As California GOP chairman Duf Sundheim is about to learn.

Sundheim announced Wednesday that the party will try to narrow the field of Republicans running to one candidate if there is a special recall election to replace Gov. Gray Davis.

Give up.

Start with the last-place Republican in the most recent Los Angeles Times poll -- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Just 3 percent of registered voters polled said they'd vote for him. But without Issa's bankroll, there would be no recall. He's not likely to bow out now, not when he has millions left with which to promote himself.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, favored by 6 percent in the poll, said he could support the Republican who "has both the best chance of winning and the best chance of turning this state around." But McClintock also pointed out that last November, as Democrats swept every statewide race, he won the most votes of any Republican on the ballot in his failed bid for state controller.

McClintock won more votes then gubernatorial wannabe Bill Simon -- who rated 9 percent in theTimes poll. I won't dredge up the painful details of Simon's amateur-hour campaign for governor last year. I, however, will suggest that Sundheim ask Simon to sign a pledge not to run again as a Republican if he blows this race. Dick Riordan -- who lost to Simon in the primary -- was the top-scoring Republican in the poll, at 11 percent. Riordan has made it known that he won't run if Arnold Schwarzenegger gets into the race. And if he does run, Riordan may run as an independent.

Well, that's one way to narrow the GOP field.

Why can't Simon make the same threat?

As for Ah-nold (who garnered 11 percent in the poll but with fewer supporters than Riordan), Republicans don't know whether to embrace him or run from him. T-3 could be a refreshing, charismatic politician who wins elections, gets things done and expands GOP rolls. Or he could spend the recall with his giant flexed foot in his mouth.

At least if Ah-nold runs in the recall election, he'll be a short-lived embarrassment. But even if Arnold polls well, he'll face GOP rivals who think the Austrian-American isn't conservative enough.

So much for narrowing the field.

McClintock told me: "I think part of that strategy depends on what the Democrats do. If the Democrats do not put up a candidate, then the more Republicans, the better."

He's right. But it's the more Republicans, the better -- for the Dems.

It turns out that it's easier to herd Democrats than it is to herd cats -- because Democrats heed the same powerful special interests. Big labor and big business interests could lose big if there's a regime change in Sacramento. They have made it clear that they'll deep-freeze any Dems who help the recall effort. Statewide officeholders pliantly pledged not to run for governor if there is a recall election -- even Dems who say they don't like Gumby.

But once a recall date is set, one of two scenarios likely will happen:

In the first, state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres will have crawled on broken glass for a distance sufficient to sway Sen. Dianne Feinstein to run.

DiFi leads in the Times' July 2 poll with 25 percent of registered voters favoring her. In a crowded field, 25 percent is king. Er, queen.

The minute Feinstein announces, Davis is history.

Or, in the second: At least one statewide Democrat gets in the race, despite his promise not to. Democratic Party adviser Bob Mulholland tells me I'm wrong, but the shortest lifespan in California is that of a principle standing in the way of a Democratic victory.

State Democrats are not going to countenance a statewide ballot on which no Democrat appears. And because the Dems have so much to lose, they can impose discipline on party members to limit the field.

But what can the Republican leadership withhold -- a share of the public's scorn?

Because the Republicans have nothing to lose, they can't impose discipline and they can't win.