Inside the numbers: California

Posted: Jul 22, 2003 12:00 AM

SAN FRANCISCO -- If ever there were an example of how quickly political fortunes can change, it's that of beleaguered California Gov. Gray Davis. The most recent polling numbers suggest a majority of the Golden State's residents want him out of office in a recall election. But for that to happen, Republicans may have to turn to a true "Terminator" as the state's alternate choice.

Davis, whose haughty demeanor and slick style have finally caught up with him, appears to be the poster boy for politicians who care only about one thing -- themselves. Prior to his re-election last year, Davis looked to posturing for a future run for the White House. He even spoke once in front of a blue oval sign designed to resemble the one that hangs in the White House pressroom. Subliminal, but silly.

Well, that version of California dreaming is out the window. Today, with an approval rating in the 20 percentiles, Davis faces an out-of-control state budget even as he claims he had prior knowledge of the state's huge deficits that he didn't disclose.

The recall petition, launched by Bay Area Congressman Darrell Issa, likely will be certified by the California secretary of state this week. This despite endless lawsuits and challenges by Davis allies. Conservatives outside California might wonder how a Democratic incumbent governor in a left-leaning state could be sinking so fast. At least in part the answer is a massive defection of moderate Democrats away from Davis. As two traditional Democratic voters -- a successful Oakland businesswoman and her husband -- put it, "We're just tired of him putting politics ahead of dealing with the problems." Surprisingly, both said, "We don't vote Republican, but if Arnold Schwarzenegger runs, we're for him all the way."

That brings us to the national fallout from the California crisis. Just this past weekend, top Democratic leaders, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and powerful San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, held a rally here to show support for Davis. But the rally appeared over-staged, and those in attendance probably spent half their time dodging the panhandlers who now choke the city's streets. This Brown isn't to be confused with "the other Brown," Jerry Brown. The latter Brown is the "Dharma and Greg"-style former governor who is now the very effective mayor of Oakland, a city he has transformed into the rising star community of Northern California.

Waiting in the wings are Issa, the two top former GOP candidates for Davis's seat -- one-time Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman Bill Simon -- and, of course, Schwarzenegger.

If the secretary of state plays it straight up, a replacement election could happen as early as September that would pit Davis on a ballot against any number of opponents. That would benefit Schwarzenegger, whose name identification and image could attract both independent and moderate Democratic votes, as well as conservative ones. Word is that Riordan, who lost the GOP primary to Simon in 2002, has agreed to work with Schwarzenegger to determine which of these two moderates will run. It's an open question if Simon or Issa can overcome the star power of Schwarzenegger, or the more broad-based appeal of Riordan.

Even more interesting is that any Californian with 65 signatures and $3,500 can place their names on the same ballot. The candidate with the most votes wins. This alone has caused both conservatives and liberals to question the sanity of the whole recall process in California. But for Republicans, it could be a tremendous opportunity.

Readers should keep their eyes on this story for other reasons, too: First, Davis is not the only governor facing a near-collapse of state government. Budgetary constraints are making incumbents unpopular throughout the nation. But Davis' pickle is by far the worst, and it's compounded by his plastic, arrogant manner.

Second, the pitiful response to all of this from hardcore Democrats supporting Davis may be indicative of how truly out of touch the party is on a national level. When Howard Dean is leading in fundraising among Democratic presidential hopefuls and Al Sharpton is receiving ovations for telling a crowd he's the only candidate who's spent time in jail, the national party may be headed to a George McGovern-like miscalculation in choosing its nominee to oppose President Bush.

Finally, this could be another test of the GOP's ability to make smart strategic decisions in critical elections. Will Republicans be willing to accept Schwarzenegger or Riordan as a potentially "moderate" GOP governor in exchange for dumping the seemingly worthless Davis? Or will they back one of the more conservative candidates, thereby running the risk of the recall becoming a re-election of Gov. Davis by default? In this case, Republicans would be wise to be pragmatic and go with a sure Terminator.