Delay leaves recall campaigns in awkward limbo

For the hastily assembled campaigns of California's recall election, these have been the worst of days.

Never mind trying to accommodate the scores of reporters jostling for sight lines and electrical outlets at one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent town halls. Or dealing with the protester outside with a bull horn yelling "Bust-a-MAN-te" as if he were in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium.

For Sean Walsh, spokes-man for the Schwarzenegger campaign, that's all to be expected as campaigns crescendo toward Election Day. What's difficult is not knowing whether he'll have to do it all over again in five months. "This has been my life from about 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. every day for the past month," says Mr. Walsh. "If we have to go to March, we swallow hard, dig in, and keep going without letup."

While campaigns outwardly maintain that they are continuing as normal, the decision by the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to delay the recall vote - and then to review its decision - has begun to take a toll.

For one, it has introduced a confused campaign calculus as strategists try to plan for an election without a finish line. In addition, it has started to show the strain on campaign workers - and even candidates - as they realize that what they once thought was the end of the election could be only the beginning.

"This is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in modern elections," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Campaigns always end at a date that is certain, so this produces all sorts of problems."

Indeed, it runs contrary to the most fundamental rules of campaigning. From the first moments of a campaign, almost every decision is made based on how many days are left before voters head to the polls. Get-out-the-vote efforts accelerate as Election Day nears. The number of television ads increase. Even the storyline that campaigns weave about their candidate depend on a fixed Election Day for the final act.

A crucial unknown quantity

Underlying all these moves, of course, is money. Campaigns have limited amounts of it, and strategists need to make sure they have enough left when it matters most - at the end of a campaign. Political insiders suggest that the dilemma over whether to spend money as if the election is in October, or whether to hedge for a later election, is the single most pressing question in candidates' war rooms this week.

"You can't back off because the election is still likely to be in October," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles. "But what drives you crazy is that the election could be postponed, and then you've burned through all that money. That's enough to keep you up at night."

Not that Joe Giardiello gets much sleep anyway. The southern California director for Tom McClintock's campaign says he works 20 hours a day, traveling with the candidate and talking to voters and volunteers. "It was a little frustrating to get the news that this could go on and on and on," he says.

A toll for smaller candidates

But Mr. Giardiello gets paid for his work. On smaller campaigns, where the money is tighter, the uncertainty of this past week has come at a much greater cost. On one hand, Ceil Sorensen knows that the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court - to delay the election on grounds that many poor and minority voters could be disenfranchised - actually fits well with the social-justice platform of her candidate, the Green Party's Peter Camejo. But regardless of the logic of the situation, she offers few smiles at a recent debate among four of the top candidates.

"It's very difficult to plan everything because every day you hear some new development that changes everything," says the political-action chairwoman of the San Fernando Valley Green Club.

"Now we hear it could be delayed either five months, two days, several weeks, or stay the same. You personally think you would like to have it over with."

Mr. Camejo, if anything, is even more sober. "It's been personally exhausting. I am the only one of the major candidates who has to work for a living," says the investment consultant who manages 1,000 employees. "They have been extremely kind and patient, but I don't know how much more I can ask of them. Maybe I'll have to hand the baton off to someone else."

Playing it safe

Only Gov. Gray Davis - with his considerable fund-raising power and slowly improving approval ratings - seems to relish a later election. Yet his campaign shows no sign of slowing down. In the skylit gym of a San Francisco church, bookended by two basketball hoops and backed up by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Governor Davis made his case against the recall in front of an overflow crowd.

His campaign signs still said Oct. 7, and his campaign speech made little mention of the potential delay. But that was just fine with Wendell Adams. In a dark jacket and tie, with his fedora tilting over shaded glasses, and a graying goatee, Mr. Adams says his vote won't change, no matter when he casts it.

"It doesn't matter if it's going to be until March," he insists. "I'm going to do what I'm going to do."

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