First fight of 2004 election - California recall

Republicans and Democrats see control of the state's governorship as key to the race for president.

The first test of the 2004 campaign may take place not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in a state where dramas of democracy are typically confined to the set of "The West Wing."

If California's secretary of state certifies a GOP-driven effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis - a move that could happen as soon as Wednesday - it will set the stage for an unusual special election in the Golden State some time this fall.

It will also catapult California to the center of the nation's political universe. At stake is not only leadership of the nation's largest state, but also the course of California politics - and, potentially, its 55 electoral votes.

At the very least, the recall battle - already star-studded with potential candidates from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Arianna Huffington - seems likely to temporarily overshadow the 2004 presidential campaign, making it harder for Democratic White House hopefuls to raise money or get their message out.

But it could have a far greater impact. Although California has been a reliably Democratic state for the past decade, a successful recall campaign could launch the beginnings of a genuine Republican revival - laying the groundwork for more competitive Senate and presidential campaigns in the state in 2004 and beyond.

On the other hand, if the effort backfires, it could deliver a devastating blow to a party already struggling with statewide decline.

To many Republicans, it's a risk worth taking. Right now, "California does not fit into the 270 for Republicans," says Sal Russo, a GOP strategist working on the recall effort, referring to the number of electoral votes a presidential candidate must win overall. "But if we get a Republican governor who can build the political infrastructure, then the dynamics change."

Certainly, most analysts agree, President Bush would face a steep uphill climb to win California outright in 2004, given the state's overall liberal tilt.

Giving Bush an edge

During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush spent a significant amount of time and money campaigning in California - only to lose it to Al Gore by 12 points. And while, as an incumbent, he would probably have a better shot this time around, the latest Field Poll shows Bush's approval rating among Californians has sunk to its lowest level since before the attacks of 9/11, with just 49 percent of state residents approving of the president's performance.

Still, Bush's expected fundraising advantage over his eventual Democratic opponent may give him more leeway to compete in the Golden State. And if Republicans gain any momentum there as a result of the recall, it could force Democrats to spend significant resources to defend their hold on the state.

Already, California's recall effort seems likely to work to the president's advantage in a number of indirect ways.

For one thing, it seems all but certain to generate a frenzy of media coverage in coming months, just as Democratic presidential candidates will be ramping up their campaigns and trying to attract attention from voters nationwide. "Just as there were complaints that Hillary Clinton's book sucked the oxygen out of the air - boy, you've not seen anything," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

It will also likely divert cash from Democratic candidates, who have come to rely on California donors as a key source of campaign funds. Perhaps in anticipation of this, three White House hopefuls - Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham, and Rep. Richard Gephardt - are out raising money on the West Coast this week alone. Conversely, many of the likely Republican recall candidates, from Mr. Schwarzenegger to Rep. Darrell Issa, are likely to be self-funded, leaving most available Republican dollars in the state free for Bush to tap.

"The beauty of this recall [for Bush] is that the Republican candidates who are running can largely finance themselves - and the Democrats can't," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Walking a tightrope

Whether the recall boosts the Republican Party's profile and power in the state, however, remains to be seen. Many analysts caution the recall campaign could easily wind up hurting the GOP as much as helping it.

While the recall now seems likely to qualify for the ballot, there's no guarantee Davis will be ousted. The Davis team has mounted a court challenge, alleging that many of the signatures for the recall were improperly gathered by non-California residents. If the certification is delayed, the election may not be held until next March, when it would coincide with the Democratic presidential primary, presumably bringing more Democrats to the pollsl.

Democrats are also fighting back in the media, portraying the effort as an attempted coup by the GOP, and comparing it to the 2000 Florida recount. If the strategy succeeds, the whole affair could wind up energizing the party - and Davis.

While party leaders are currently refusing to put any Democrat other than Davis on the ballot - leaving voters to choose solely between him and a group of Republicans - they still hold the option of entering a more popular Democratic replacement before the filing deadline. (A name currently being floated is former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta.)

Democrats also point out that any Republican who were to win would immediately face the same budget problems as Davis. "Why would a Republican want to take over as captain of the Titanic?" says Philip Muller, a Democratic strategist.

If the winner turns out to be a conservative such as Congressman Issa, it could be a short honeymoon. "California's completely out of step with [Issa] on key issues from guns to abortion to offshore drilling," says Mr. Muller.

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