In recall, personality may outweigh policy

Schwarzenegger's lead may reflect a pattern in which issue positions aren't the top factor for voters.

Mark Weaver, a Republican political consultant in Ohio, has the perfect scenario to help Cruz Bustamante gain some traction in California's recall race.

During the next debate, the mild- mannered lieutenant governor needs to leap out of his seat to save the life of an audience member who's choking. "Voters would read that he was a take-charge guy, that he was proficient in something other than politics, like first aid, and that he cared about other people," Mr. Weaver says with tongue planted in cheek.

For the time being, though, Mr. Bustamante has another kind of choking to worry about. If the polls are correct, voters are still flocking to Arnold Schwarzenegger and not fretting over the movie star's lack of experience, reluctance to debate, or party-hardy past. Unless something extraordinary happens to change the landscape of the election, Weaver and other pundits expect Bustamante's failure to compete in the charisma sweepstakes to doom him to defeat, never mind that the state is dominated by Democratic voters.

It's not that policy positions are irrelevant. Analysts say Mr. Schwarzenegger may appeal to voters in part for hewing a relatively moderate line on California's difficult budget issues. He shuns talk of hiking taxes, whereas Bustamante favors raising levies on the best off.

Moreover, Schwarzenegger has had his own challenges on the personal front.

Still, the various Schwarzenegger foibles - a hedonistic lifestyle in the '70s - haven't kept him out of first place in the polls. Just a few months ago, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine an exciting gubernatorial candidate in a state that has recently elected such disciples of drab as Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian, and current Gov. Gray Davis. Then, of course, the bodybuilder with the strange orange tan entered the race.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has been accused of being cagey on some issues but he has staked out a position as supporting fiscal discipline. If anything, the actor's confident presence in public has some believing he has the key quality needed for California: leadership.

He's the kind of candidate who tries to keep his political identity relatively fuzzy, so voters can read whatever they want about his politics, says Dan Hallin, professor of communications at the University of California at San Diego. "A challenger always tries to do that, but it's particularly true of a celebrity candidate who comes from outside. It's true of Wesley Clark, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, and to some extent Ronald Reagan."

But what about the state's problems? Do citizens care about California's budget crunch, funding for education, or driver's licenses for illegal immigrants? Likely voters have told the Los Angeles Times Poll that they're most interested in a candidate's stands, followed by his or her personal character and likelihood of victory.

"People want to feel like they're thinking about (issues)," says poll director Susan Pinkus, although the personal appeal of candidates is an "underlying" factor.

It's actually more than that, says Jack Treadway, chair of the political science department at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. "Voters know how they're supposed to respond when you ask them questions."

In fact, Mr. Treadway says, "most don't vote on the basis of issues. If they don't vote with their party identification, they're voting their perception of the candidate."

That's not say that policy positions can't hurt candidates. Though perceived as a moderate at the start of the race, many now believe the lieutenant governor to be more liberal than Gray Davis.

The governor himself may face a bigger hurdle than any of the would-be replacement candidates. To avert a recall, he needs to convince a majority of voters to keep him in office.

"He has something that we political scientists haven't studied very well: the opposite of charisma," says Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University. "This is a huge factor here."

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