Finally, the recall tackles an issue

Schwarzenegger and others sketch fiscal ideas, moving the race beyond celebrity.

The California recall - a phenomenon that has so far been likened to everything from a carnival to a game show - is finally beginning to resemble something else: a real campaign.

In recent days, several candidates have come forward with proposals to deal with the state's economic problems. The first ads have gone up on the airwaves. Gov. Gray Davis has given a statewide address and is launching a series of town-hall meetings with ordinary Californians.

It's a sign that, with campaign staffs now assembled - and the final court challenge to the recall dismissed - the race is taking off in earnest. The task for most serious candidates now is to separate themselves from the hoopla, and appear gubernatorial.

As a result, analysts say it's not surprising that contenders are looking to gain credibility first on the issues that launched the recall: the budget and the economy.

"It's very telling that they're all coming out with their economic plans [now]," says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson. "It is the initial marker in this campaign."

Already, candidates on both sides are moving to frame the economic situation to their advantage. Republicans are casting California's problems as worse than that of other states and blaming governor Davis for the discrepancy. Democrats place the blame on larger forces affecting the whole country's economy.

So far, most voters are inclined to hold Davis accountable for the state's woes, with polls showing that nearly 60 percent of voters would recall him. If that perception were to change, the recall would almost certainly lose a primary source of momentum.

The bigger challenge for candidates, however, lies in offering solutions, since any realistic proposal to close the budget deficit must necessarily involve either tax increases or spending cuts or both - promises most politicians aren't eager to campaign on.

Staking out policy positions

This week, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante put forward a proposal called "Tough Love for California," calling for $8 billion in new taxes or fees and $2 billion in unspecified cuts. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth also put forward a plan, in which he proposed cutting spending across the board by 5 percent.

But analysts say that while voters will probably expect all major candidates to identify at least some specific measures they would take, it may not be to the candidates' political advantage to outline too many details.

After meeting with a team of economic advisers this week, Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would cut spending rather than raise taxes - but declined to rule out new taxes definitively, or to say which programs he would cut. Instead, he said the state budget was so incomprehensible that his team of business leaders and academic advisers couldn't make "heads or tails" of it, and that - if elected - he intended to get a team of outside experts to conduct an audit so that he could determine where to trim.

While this argument may seem like a copout to some, it may well resonate with many voters, who tend to share this view of government as absurdly inefficient and complex, says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "As an opening gambit, it's a neat piece of political jujitsu - turning his lack of specificity into political virtue."

Mr. Schwarzenegger also argued that what matters most in office - and to voters - is not a series of "25-point plans," but leadership, and the ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature. "The public doesn't care about figures," he said. "What the people want to hear is, are you going to make the changes?"

Leadership qualities

Given that the state requires a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, analysts say superior political skills may indeed be the primary requirement for a governor during a time of budget crunches.

Though Schwarzenegger's abilities in that area are largely untested, he could bring certain advantages. "He would bring his own bully pulpit to the governorship," says Professor Pitney. "Unlike most California governors, he actually could go over the heads of politicians [in the legislature] and appeal to the people."

More specifics, please

Still, with so much concern about the economy, the actor may need to put forward a more comprehensive agenda as surveys show some voters are uneasy about his inexperience. Polls show Schwarzenegger and Bustamante are running virtually even.

"This is a guy who's got 100 percent name identification, and the California Field Poll has him at 22 percent [support]," says Bob Mulholland, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party. "Something ain't jelling."

Tellingly, in his first TV ad this week, the actor tells viewers that while they've been doing their job, politicians have let them down.

But observers also see an implicit message in the early, expensive ad buy directed at the other candidates in the field: Be prepared for a costly campaign.

"He wants to control the airwaves," says Mr. Whalen, who has worked with Schwarzenegger in the past. If the actor's move intimidates some of his opponents, he adds, "It wouldn't be the first time he's done that."

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