When President Bush touches down in southern California Thursday for a fundraising and campaign swing, he will enter the most charged political landscape since the 2000 Florida recount. And for the next two days, he will try to impact it as little as possible.
Clearly, the president has a stake in the high-profile recall battle - a contest that, while risky, could potentially give him a boost in the state in 2004. But he also, for a number of reasons, is likely to present himself as simply an interested bystander.
Mr. Bush recently said he believed Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a "good governor," but he is not expected to appear with the actor or to offer any sort of official endorsement.
For one thing, such a move might upset Bush's own conservative base, which opposes Mr. Schwarzenegger's stands on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
But it also would be of only questionable value to Schwarzenegger, whose approval rating with Democratic-leaning Californians is higher than the president's. If Bush appears personally involved in the recall, it could give credence to Democratic efforts to portray it as a White House-orchestrated coup. It could also allow Democrats to nationalize the election, making it less a contest between Gov. Gray Davis and challengers like Schwarzenegger than a clash between national Democrats and Republicans.
"It's important that the recall not become overly partisan or be about people outside of California," says Sal Russo, a Republican strategist. For the recall to succeed, he says, the focus must not shift to Bush - or to anyone other than Governor Davis.
One reason for Bush to step gingerly in California is that it's not entirely clear that a win by a Republican would be a positive for him. Given the state's budget problems, many GOP strategists argue Bush might be better off with Davis and the Democrats in power and taking the blame, rather than a Republican governor who could wind up even more unpopular.
But the California governorship would also give Bush a key organizational base for fundraising and campaign activity in 2004. If Schwarzenegger sweeps into office, bringing a wave of new voters with him - and if the state's budget situation improves as a result of either new policies or external forces - it could reap dividends for the president.
Given the volatility of the situation, Bush's actions are likely to be magnified and closely watched. His earlier statement in praise of Schwarzenegger was significant as a careful bestowal of approval that did not lock the president into an official position he might later regret. Along with a desire not to offend right-wing supporters, analysts say Bush's caution probably reflects the fact that Schwarzenegger is a political novice who could still potentially stumble. "There will be ample opportunity [for Bush] to get involved later," says Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant.
In addition, Bush may still feel burned by California's previous gubernatorial election, when he backed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, only to see him suffer an embarrassing loss in the primary.
But Schwarzenegger may not need - or want - the president's endorsement, anyway. Certainly, he won't need Bush's help in fundraising, typically one of the biggest bonuses tied to a presidential endorsement.
And while the president could solidify GOP support for the actor - a potentially serious concern, since there are a number of more conservative Republicans in the race - he could also alienate independent and crossover Democratic voters whom Schwarzenegger might otherwise attract.
More damaging, Bush's involvement could help Democrats cast the recall not as a populist uprising but as a top-down partisan war.
Already, Democrats are likening the recall to the Florida recount, portraying it as an illegitimate power grab by the GOP. They are also trying to bring Bush directly into the fray, blaming many of California's problems on the president's policies, and labeling such candidates as Schwarzenegger "Bush Republicans."
"It's a way of saying, look at some of the origins of this - a certain part of this is federally caused," says Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, and a former Democratic operative. "There's two things that you want on every voter's mind if you're a Democrat: the Bush economy and Florida."
But so far there is little evidence that voters are blaming Bush for much of what's happening in the state.
Indeed, "Californians don't have as gloomy a view of the national scene as they do of the state," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
As a result, Davis may find it difficult to get Californians to regard the nation's fiscal situation - and the president's handling of it - with the same emotion that many regard the state's crisis and the governor's stewardship.