LOS ANGELES — Officially, two strong Republicans are vying for governor in California's historic recall.
Unofficially, based on the response of rank-and-file GOP members after Saturday's state-party convention, it is only a matter of time until conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock decides - for the good of the party and himself - to no longer be an active candidate.
Barring major missteps, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger would then become the sole credible Republican and, in the view of many analysts, have enough votes to defeat leading Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
It also presumes, McClintock supporters add, that a McClintock exit would not alienate the conservative faithful enough to keep them from the polls - and so jeopardize the goals of the recall itself. (A majority of voters must vote to oust Gov. Gray Davis (D) for any other the other candidate to have a shot.)
"This is a very tough situation for Republicans on the eve of an historic chance to change their fortunes," says William Schneider, a pollster and political analyst. "They have far fewer doubts about McClintock [than Schwarzenegger]. But they don't feel Mr. McClintock can win and his presence in the race puts the party in danger of losing."
With McClintock showing rising strength in recent polls, the convention was expected to be somewhat of a showdown between two GOP views of how to run Sacramento. But Schwarz-enegger seemed to gain momentum here as the more electable.
"This is the most charged ... bunch of Republicans I've seen in 20 years," says analyst Allan Hoffenblum. "There is a segment of very fervent supporters for Tom McClintock that will remain so, but the party is so starved for victory that come Oct. 7 they will not jeopardize victory."
McClintock's exit would mean, too, a reversal of his pledges to the party's conservative wing that he is in this race to the end as a matter of principle - if not to win the governorship, then to keep those more conservative agendas in the wider debate.
Yet to many prominent Republicans, the enduring question of the race comes down to simple math. "We just can't win with two Republicans in the race," said Rep. Darrell Issa in the convention's keynote address. He is the millionaire businessman who bankrolled the petition effort that led to the recall. Two recent polls give Bustamante roughly 30 percent of likely votes, Schwarzenegger about 25 percent, and McClintock 13 to 18 percent.
As the convention's keynote speaker, Mr. Issa said it is not his, the convention's, or GOP officials' purpose to ask a candidate to step down. Party Chairman Duf Sundheim also told reporters he hopes the candidates will decide at some point that one must go: "We hope they will come to the conclusion on their own." Other officials opined privately on whether it would be days or weeks until McClintock formally ended his candidacy. The opinion that Schwarzenegger should go was heard as well, but less often.
Yet the mood was charged with the possible triumph of common conservative principles - smaller government, lower taxes - and for the most part, 1,500 of the state's most active Republicans simply listened to candidates, embraced them, and put off the inevitable.
For more activist, conservative, hard-core members of the state GOP, it was a first chance to peer at Schwarzenegger, who's been crisscrossing the state. By most accounts, his short speech was a hit. He told the gathering why he'd become a Republican, conjuring a story going back to his boyhood in Austria.
"I saw communism with my own eyes," he said. "When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets." Coming to the US, he saw a Nixon/Humphrey debate on TV. "I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which is what I had just left. I heard Nixon talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering taxes and strengthening the military. I said to a friend, 'What party is he?' My friend said, 'He's a Republican.' And I said, Then I am a Republican."
"I was undecided about Arnold when I came, but he was able to articulate why he is a Republican," says Grace Daniel, a Yolo County businesswoman.
In contrast, McClintock's dinner address was sparsely attended. The heart of his speech was a "to do" list for first day as governor. Its specificity defined both the differences between his approach and Schwarzenegger's, and his appeal to party faithful.
"I found Arnold's speech to be all fluff and puff," said the Rev. Louie Sheldon, a conservative Republican. "Tom is the one with experience and ideas, so I propose that Mr. Schwarzenegger consider dropping out." Unfortunately for him and other McClintock supporters, that doesn't seem to be the Republican game plan.