Recall race could boil down to two, after all

With a grinding certainty, the primary of public opinion is slowly narrowing the race to potentially replace California Gov. Gray Davis to a two-man battle.

Already, Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth have dropped out - not because of party pressure or a lack of money, but because they had no chance to win. Now, if Tom McClintock does not gain momentum in this weekend's state Republican convention, he could soon face the same reality.

It is a political trajectory that points toward an election more typical than many experts imagined possible, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cruz Bustamante the only major candidates left standing.

Yet Mr. Schwarzenegger is no typical candidate. Less than a month before the election, his avoidance of debates has kept him shrouded in mystery. What he says or does could still result in wild swings in support, while Lt. Governor Bustamante's support should be largely locked in as the antirecall alternative. The result could be a campaign of unusual volatility until the last day.

"With Bustamante, the key for a lot of voters is that he is a Democrat," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "Schwarzenegger still has to close the sale with people who think it would be fun to vote for him but are not sure he can really be governor."

Clearly, Schwarzenegger's greatest chance for success still lies in the hands of state Sen. McClintock. As a conservative iconoclast who has thumbed his nose at the Republican establishment in the past, McClintock might be willing to take his crusade to the last day no matter what the polls say. That is his intention, he has insisted. But time could change the political landscape.

Simon strategist Sal Russo says Mr. Simon received no phone calls from Republicans asking him to withdraw from the race, but the future of the campaign became increasingly hard to ignore. Simon was not making up any ground, and there was no point continuing.

"Because there was no primary, the primary is taking place in the candidates' minds," says Mr. Russo. But "at the right time, I think we [the GOP] will get down to one candidate. No one wants to be a spoiler."

That time has not yet come, he says. McClintock can still establish himself as the front-runner. But if he hasn't made up ground within a week or so, the decision will be obvious. "His support will disappear."

Without McClintock, the shape of the recall race changes dramatically. Not only does the most recent Field Poll indicate that Schwarzenegger would be slightly ahead of Bustamante if McClintock dropped out, but it also reports that more Republicans than Democrats remain undecided - 22 percent to 12 percent.

Should the field be narrowed to two major choices, that suggests Schwarzenegger might have more room for growth than Bustamante. Moreover, "Bustamante is a known quantity," says Dr. Pitney. "We still have to see how well Schwarzenegger responds in an unscripted situation."

If that moment comes, it could define the course of the campaign. And if it goes badly for Schwarzenegger, the oddities of the recall could once again come into play.

"Bustamante so scares [conservatives] because they see his frenzied support of illegal immigrants," says political consultant Arnold Steinberg. If Schwarzenegger stumbles, "they might vote "no" on the recall so they don't get Bustamante."

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