McClintock's Choice

California's recall race has Republicans in a quandary. They can unite and have a solid opportunity to take back the governor's chair. Or, as they have in the past, they can fight among themselves and stay out in the cold.

Only one Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has a serious chance to win if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled. But the Republican vote - after the withdrawals of Bill Simon Jr. and Peter Ueberroth - is split between actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a pragmatist, and state Sen. Tom McClintock, a staunch conservative.

The latest Field Poll shows Mr. Bustamante getting 32 percent of the vote, Mr. Schwarzenegger 27 percent, and Senator McClintock 14 percent. (The margin of error is 4.5 percent.) A Los Angeles Times poll shows McClintock gaining. But many believe that were he to bow out of the race, and his supporters shift to Schwarzenegger, the GOP's chances of winning would rise.

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Therein lies the rub. For the past several years the California GOP's pragmatists and conservatives have been unable to unite - a squabble that brought the party to a 50-year low last November, when it lost all eight statewide races. For many years pundits pointed to California as the main reason Republicans nationally held a supposed "lock" on the White House. But state GOP fortunes plummeted in the 1990s, as coastal moderates - liberal on social issues - turned to Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

The math is fairly simple: Most Golden State GOP activists are conservatives. Most voters at present are not. This is not Ronald Reagan's California: The electorate's political and demographic fault lines have shifted markedly since 1990; registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 44 percent to 35 percent. Conservative GOP candidates can coast to victory in certain legislative districts, but they cannot currently garner enough votes to win statewide elections.

With Schwarzenegger, the conservatives can get much of what they want. But they're unhappy with his positions on social issues (abortion, gay rights, gun control) and don't quite trust him on fiscal issues. With McClintock they get a candidate who is ideologically pure, but who will have a difficult time attracting the moderate voters along the coast needed to win election.

Faced with a choice between principle and victory last year, the GOP chose principle - the conservative Mr. Simon defeated former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the GOP primary. As a result, the unpopular Governor Davis narrowly won reelection with only 47 percent of the vote.

Despite intense pressure to withdraw, McClintock characteristically vows to stay in the race. His decision may determine the success of California Republicans for years to come.

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