In the land of Reagan, GOP faces prospect of a shutout

Polls and even Republicans themselves say Democrats look poised to sweep California's top offices in November.

One leading Republican strategist calls the race for governor here "a boxing match with [Democratic Gov.] Gray Davis in one corner hitting himself in the face, while in the other corner a pair of gloves languishes unused."

A second says California Democrats this November could pull off the first, all-partisan sweep of the state's top seven elected offices in more than half a century.

A third calls the Republican predicament statewide here "the most dire in recent memory."

Reflecting a steady demographic shift in race, ethnicity, and income, the state that created the prototypical Republican enclave, Orange Country, and launched the country's most-popular conservative, Ronald Reagan, is tilting more and more Democratic. With the governor's office, both legislative houses, both Senate seats, and most big-city mayors solidly Democratic, some see even bigger gains ahead and wonder if voters may ever look back.

"I don't think this is a blip on the screen," says Larry Berg, founder of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics. He and others recount the rise of Asian and Latino middle classes, the decline of the industrial base of defense-aerospace after the cold war, and the ascendancy of high-tech and entertainment-based wealth are all combining to produce a new kind of voter base with decidedly liberal loyalties. "The makeup of the state just isn't what it used to be," says Mr. Berg.

The latest evidence to play into this theory are the fortunes of Mr. Davis who, despite a rash of top-shelf – high-profile – bungles, is leading his Republican opponent by a huge margin in a top poll.

Critics blame Davis for the state's energy woes of recent years as well as unpopular strategies to pull through the crisis, such assigning expensive, long-term electricity contracts. Having come into office with a $4 billion surplus, he is widely viewed as the main culprit behind a $23 billion state budget deficit, the largest in US history. And he is also embroiled in a political scandal in which an aide is accused of accepting a $25,000 check from a lobbyist for software company Oracle several days after the state signed a $95 million contract with the same company.

Yet since the March 5 primary, when Davis was two points behind his Republican challenger, Bill Simon, Davis has charged ahead to a 14-point lead in the California Poll. That suggests that if the election were held today – among California Poll voters who say they've already decided – Davis would be elected by a 20 percent margin.

But besides taking the top office, such a scenario could also ripple across other such high-profile posts as secretary of state, to lieutenant goveronor, controller, treasurer, and insurance commissioner.

"He would probably carry the entire ticket with him," says Tony Quinn, a long-time analyst of political and demographic trends. He says a Davis win could bring with it Democratic seats in the state legislature – perhaps close to a two-thirds margin – "at which point Republicans would become completely irrelevant in Sacramento."

Mr. Quinn and others see broader consequences from such developments. Across the state, it means a shrinking pool of viable Republican candidates for offices from Congress to statehouse, solidifying Democratic strengths for years to come. Nationally, it includes a Democratic party and presidential candidate who could rely on California's 55 electoral votes and thus spend money – as they did in the 2000 election – on other states. It also could mean a Bush administration write-off of the state in the interim – abandoning key California voter concerns.

"It takes California out of the equation for Bush when he gets no help if he runs here," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "That's why you see a national farm bill with a lot for Iowa farmers but none for California, or why Bush is willing to do an oil-drilling moratorium off Florida, but not California."

Others say pronouncing the election loss of Mr. Simon or the death of the California Republican party is premature. They cite private polls in which the top candidates are dead-even. And they say the same scenario – in which the top vote-getter in the November gubernatorial race influences other key ticket choices – could just as easily run the other way.

"It's entirely possible that if voters are so fed up with Davis that they fail to show up at the polls in large numbers, you could also have big Republican wins down the ticket," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Poll.

But most analysts say that Simon has not sufficiently taken advantage of Davis' weaknesses – partly out of personal style, partly out of political strategy, and partly out of lack of money. His coffers reportedly stand around $8 million compared with Davis' $40 million.

"There are some of us who would like Simon to become more aggressive," says Dan Schnur, a former adviser to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. "The energy crisis and the budget mess have put Davis in a bad situation, but Simon has yet to grow his advantage."

Simon's own political advisers say there is no need to jump into a heated battle with Davis now, five months before the election. California's primary was early this year – in March – leaving more months than usual open to campaigning.

"There is no way voters are going to stand for a six-month election campaign for governor," says Simon campaign chief Sal Russo. "When someone is taking the gun out to shoot themselves, you just don't want to say anything to make them shoot at you."

As he did in the primary, Simon appears to be taking the strategy of letting voters become disenchanted with the opposition, rather than lay out specifics on issues in which voters are already known to resist conservative values.

But some observers say this tactic is even more calculated.

"What's he going to say without getting into trouble?" asks Berg "From water to transportation, to education, to the environment, to crime, he is on the wrong side of the issues from where most California voters are. This is no longer the state it used to be."

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