Republican candidate Tom McClintock laughs from deep in the belly when asked if he will be the "spoiler" in the great populist revolution/experiment/circus of California's gubernatorial recall election.
"My opponents say I'm the Ross Perot of this campaign, possibly siphoning off enough votes to hand the election to Democrats," he says, settling onto a shady park bench for an interview. "I say, 'Wait a minute.... Ross Perot was an idle millionaire, with no public-policy experience who one day on a whim entered the presidential race.' That sounds like another candidate in this race ... not me," he says, referring to muscleman/millionaire Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Once a mere asterisk in the con- fused calculus of California's 135-candidate recall election, Mr. McClintock has gradually emerged as the strong, third-place vote getter in polls - rising (at 14-to-18 points) while the two leaders - fellow Republican Schwarzenegger (26 points) and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (28 points) - tread water.
As the race enters its final stretch, McClintock's motives and acts are becoming paramount for two reasons. One, splitting the Republican vote, he could cost the party its best chance in a decade of high, statewide office. Two, his candidacy could drag down the success of the recall itself by forcing Republican partisans to reconsider driving Gov. Gray Davis from office because of fear that they could hand the office to a more liberal Democrat, Mr. Bustamante.
Ever since McClintock leaped from 4 percent voter support to double-digits about three weeks ago, the pressure has risen for him to stop offering himself as an alternative to Arnold Schwarzen-egger that could hand the election to Democrats. But as more voters get to know him, his poll numbers have continued to rise, while Schwarzenegger's are flat.
More conservative than Schwarzenegger on social issues - abortion, gay marriage, gun control - he is also far more experienced in fiscal matters, with California's sagging economy the No. 1 issue.
"He is by far the most studied and experienced of all the candidates in fiscal issues and how to implement public policy," says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "If the election were a college SAT test, McClintock would be the next governor hands down."
Even though he is widely acknowledged as the more knowledgeable, the more articulate, and the more detailed idea-man, 25-year government veteran McClintock does not have the millions of dollars of his chief Republican rival, nor his name recognition. Therein lies one of the chief ironies of the recall: Does he/should he/will he step aside to allow the neophyte challenger - and the Republican party - to gain its best chance of victory?
"He is a man who stands on his word and his principles while claiming time and again that he is in this to the last," says Doug Jeffe, a longtime California political consultant. "If he did get out, it would be totally uncharacteristic of him."
Now, with Schwarzenegger and Bustamante in a near dead heat, one leading Republican, Darrell Issa, the millionaire who bankrolled the signature gathering to oust Davis, has said that if Schwarzenegger or McClintock don't back off, Republicans should vote "no" on the recall. Polls show that if Arnold backed out, McClintock could not win.
But McClintock rejects a widespread analysis that conservative candidates have brought Republican fortunes to their low ebb. He feels the current crisis is the perfect storm for their historic comeback.
"Great parties are built on great principles," says McClintock, referring to the pillars of conservative policy: holding down taxes, cutting waste, standing up for the unborn, and resisting government approval of gay unions. "This is not a time to change our principles."
While such comments win kudos from some for adherence to principle, they strike others as bullheaded.
"McClintock's constant megaphoning of conservative social agendas is presenting a real problem for Republicans who really like him for his fiscal experience," says William Schneider, a pollster and political analyst. "They know Tom has the smarts to get this state out of economic problems and they worry about Arnold's lack of experience and specificity. But they don't think Tom can win and can't resist the fact that Arnold could."
As a child, McClintock campaigned for Barry Goldwater at age 8. In high school he organized classmates into a statewide GOP group. A political-science graduate of UCLA, he became a syndicated columnist railing about former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, lauding the character of John Wayne. Hired by a former L.A. police chief-cum-state senator (Ed Davis), McClintock began a 25-year career in Sacramento, marked by opposition to Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson over tax hikes and spending waste.
Despite his conservative stances, he was the top GOP vote-getter in the state, running for controller, in the 2002 election.
"I got very little from the state GOP and was outspent by my opponent by 5 to 1," says McClintock. "Despite all that, I lost by less than 1 percent of the vote."
A man who often quotes Reagan and Shakespeare, McClintock is considered a legislative loner with few legislative friends for his near two-decade pursuit of shrinking the state payroll.
In his favorite stump speech he tells why cutting is so important. As a child, he came home from school to find his mother crying over an unexpectedly high tax bill. The moment has lived in his imagination ever since that government takes too much from citizens and delivers too little.