W. and Arnold

Posted: Oct 23, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- It was not spelled out during the brief get-acquainted meeting at Riverside, Calif., last week between George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the president's campaign team is giving firm advice to the governor-elect of California: don't raise taxes and do cut spending.

That is more than an altruistic helping hand for a fellow Republican new to the business of governing. Bush's prospects for a second term could be at stake. Republican strategists no longer consider California so clearly Democratic that it will end up as a "red" state only in the unlikely event of a re-election landslide by the president. On the contrary, Bush may need California's 55 electoral votes to eke out a second term win.

The original White House strategy imagined a Golden State campaign where Bush would be running against the backdrop of failed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. What Bush's planners cannot tolerate now is a failed Republican governor in Sacramento. The fear in Washington is that Schwarzenegger will plunge into a high tax abyss and take Bush with him.

The new governor will be surrounded by civil servants who will argue that there is no way out of the state budgetary crunch other than to raise taxes -- the same politically disastrous pleadings accepted in recent years by Republican governors of Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio and Nevada. If Schwarzenegger succumbs to the same siren song, Bush's unwanted choice in California next year will be between rejecting or ignoring a tax-hiking governor.

Bush agents recommend the alternative favored by California conservatives: cut back the bloated state government, a course rejected by dominant Democrats in the state legislature, by appealing to citizenry. The Progressive movement a century ago left Californians not only the Recall, which removed Davis and elected Schwarzenegger, but also the Initiative, which could enact measures reducing government.

This exercise takes on an air of urgency for Bush when the 2004 electoral map is analyzed realistically. Prospects to turn Michigan and Pennsylvania, big "blue" states of 2000, are not at all promising. The "red" states of Florida, Ohio and West Virginia are most vulnerable to going the other way next year. Therefore, California could be a necessity, not a luxury.

The principal reason to think that Bush can carry California in 2004 after losing it so badly in 2000 is the changing Latino vote. In contrast to African-Americans' monolithic support for Democrats, Latinos are in play politically. The president's private polls give him 40 percent support for re-election from this bloc. Schwarzenegger got 30 percent on Oct. 7 -- an even more remarkable number than Bush's support because this was in an actual election and was picked up against an Hispanic-American Democrat as his principal opponent, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

That 30 percent of Latinos supported a candidate who seemed less of a Republican than the state's previous three GOP governors over the last 40 years. Conservatives shuddered when Schwarzenegger breakfasted last week with prominent Los Angeles Democrat Robert Hertzberg, former speaker of the Assembly and currently a law partner of former Clinton political strategist Mickey Kantor. Hertzberg is reported to be set for a major post in the Schwarzenegger administration, but not a policymaking function.

Prominence in Schwarzenegger's campaign of former moderate Gov. Pete Wilson's political team also causes concern on the right. Even Bush's operatives worry about the presence of Don Sipple, a Wilson alumnus who did an excellent job on Schwarzenegger's media program during the campaign.

Nevertheless, sources close to the governor-elect insist that Sipple and everybody else on the inside are firmly against raising taxes. The argument that Republican governors dating back to Ronald Reagan pushed a tax increase is economically irrelevant when California businesses are leaving the state and politically irrelevant when the state's citizens are waging a tax revolt.

It is no secret that investment banker Gerald Parsky, the president's main man in California, was not originally enthusiastic about recalling Davis. But in the state's transformed political world, Parsky is seen in Washington as a guardian against an insensate tax increase that would negate his three years of hard work to guarantee George W. Bush's re-election.