Gov. Schwarzenegger by October?

Posted: Jun 18, 2003 12:00 AM

California, spawning ground of the great anti-tax revolt that vaulted Ronald Reagan into the White House, appears pregnant with yet another populist rebellion. Hundreds of thousands of Californians have now signed petitions for an election to recall Gov. Gray Davis.

A decade ago, Chief Justice Rose Bird and two colleagues were recalled from the California Supreme Court for refusing to impose the death penalty. Yet, no governor has ever suffered that indignity, though 31 attempts have been made.

Why could Gray Davis become the first?

Because, with an approval rating at 27 percent, a majority of voters are now telling pollsters they would like to toss him out. Moreover, Davis faces a budget crisis. He must close a looming $38 billion deficit, which will require new cuts in state spending and new tax increases on top of this year's cuts and tax hikes. Worse for Davis, he is believed to have deceived voters in 2002 as to the depth of the looming budget crisis.

At first, the recall effort was dismissed as a project of full-mooners. The White House, which prefers to see Davis and his Democratic assembly stew in their own juice and California turn to the Republicans in revulsion in 2004, opposed the recall.

But the elites were ignored by the volunteers. Then, Rep. Darrell Issa, who wants to be elected governor the day Davis is recalled, put over $500,000 into the campaign. Then Robert Novak went out to California to learn that the train was out of control and, like "OId 97," picking up steam coming down the mountain.

Which opens up this scenario.

If the volunteers get sufficient signatures, 900,000 or so, by mid-July, with a few hundred thousand to spare in case some signatures are invalidated, the recall of Davis goes onto a September ballot, with a high likelihood that he will be canned.

Why? Not only will the anti-Davis forces, already a majority, vote to throw him out, so, too, will all the supporters of every candidate who, by then, will have put his or her name on the ballot to succeed Davis. And as the requirements to get on the ballot are minimal, there will be a host of candidates, all calling for Davis' ouster. Who would succeed Davis?

The strongest candidate in a Golden State that has become reliably Democratic is Dianne Feinstein. If the popular senator agrees to run, Davis is cooked and Feinstein will almost surely be governor of California by October.

But here is the rub. For Feinstein to become governor, she must put a knife in Davis' back by letting her name go onto the fall ballot, while he is fighting for his life. This would be seen as an act of betrayal of a fellow Democrat whose sole crime was that he had become unpopular managing a historic budget crisis.

Could Feinstein do this? Would she want to replace Gray Davis in Sacramento and herself find $38 billion in new taxes or spending cuts? Why would Sen. Feinstein want to be Gov. Feinstein in 2003, rather than wait until 2006 and run after the budget crisis has been resolved?

Sources in California are saying that Feinstein does not want to be seen as stabbing Davis, does not want to be governor in October and will not permit her name to appear on the fall ballot.

If they are correct, the likely next governor of California may be ... Conan the Barbarian, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Conservatives dissent. Schwarzenegger is pro-gay rights, pro-choice on abortion and pro-gun control, and called the impeachment of Bill Clinton a Republican disgrace. How, then, conservatives ask, could the Terminator win enough GOP support to be elected?

Answer: The race to succeed Davis will not be a two-way race. It will be a free-for-all. There could be a dozen Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Reformers on the ballot. Just 25 percent could win it.

Moreover, the right wing of the GOP is disunited on a candidate, and no conservative save Bill Simon -- who was defeated last fall -- has the money and name recognition to compete with the Terminator in a statewide race that will last only 60 days. Also, the right has soured on Simon, and Issa and other conservatives will be in the race, so the Right will be splintered, opening up a fast lane for Arnold.

Sources tell this writer Schwarzenegger has agreed to run, that ex-L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan supports him, that he has begun to reach out to the right to cut a deal where it plays a lead role in balancing the state budget and is given concessions on partial birth abortion. If Conan the Barbarian is in Sacramento by fall, his robes awash in blood from slashing the California state bureaucracy, recall where you read it first.