Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Influence of recall on 2004 vote not yet clear


Republicans and Democrats labored on Wednesday to portray Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California as a partisan plus in next year's White House race, but reached one consensus: relief the show is over.

The election of the action movie star and former bodybuilder as the Republican governor of the nation's most populous state and next year's biggest political prize, ended weeks of chaos triggered by a historic recall drive against unpopular Democratic Governor Gray Davis.

The unusual special election put California front and center on the political stage, draining away media attention and potential donors just as Democrats vying for the right to challenge President George W. Bush next year were gearing up their campaigns.

"The end of the recall is good news," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. "It means the [presidential] candidates can turn up the microphone. It gives them a chance to take control of the agenda."

Republican consultant Scott Reed dismissed recalls in general as "bad politics, bad policy and unfair" and said most in his party opposed them.

The White House had kept its distance from the California election, wary of Democratic efforts to paint the recall as manipulated or encouraged by the Republican president.

Bush has pledged to work with Schwarzenegger, but sidestepped questions on Tuesday about whether he still considered the actor would make "a good governor" after a last-minute string of sexual harassment allegations.

"The process is about over," said Bush, who did not publicly campaign for his fellow Republican. "The people of California are going to speak."

Californians spoke loudly, streaming to the polls in record numbers to throw Davis out of office and give Republicans control of a heavily Democratic state with 55 electoral votes -- 20 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidential election that is just over a year away.

mixed blessing

Party strategists and political analysts saw it as a mixed blessing.

"Prior to last week, the Republicans' ability to take over the California governorship would have been a huge asset to the party," Reed said. "The last five days of the campaign have called that into question."

"The prize is somewhat tarnished," said Backus, who asked how Bush could fully embrace Schwarzenegger in view of the sexual charges and the new governor's pro-abortion, pro-gay rights positions without alienating his own conservative base.

Democratic Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a 2004 presidential hopeful, predicted Schwarzenegger's victory would not change the character of the California electorate.

The last Republican presidential nominee to win the state was Bush's father in 1988. In 2000, the current president lost California to Democrat Al Gore by 12 percentage points.

The change in California's Statehouse means Republicans will have a better organization in place to support the party's presidential ticket and possibly a bigger fund-raising base.

Democrats are likely to be forced to spend more time and money in a state they would expect to carry easily.

"It's a billiard ball indirect shot," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But it's such a freakish election in a way that you've got to be careful about making generalizations."

Schwarzenegger tapped into voter anger over Davis' handling of the state's huge budget shortfall and capitalized on his status as an outsider in much the same way presidential hopeful Howard Dean has attracted support from Democrats disaffected with the direction of their party.

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