By the measure of policy, appearance, and personality, Cruz Bustamante might seem a political photo negative of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's a contrast both have sought to cultivate in ads and in Wednesday's debate, drawing clear distinctions between each other on issues from fund-raising to taxes.
Yet with 12 days to go, the Democratic front-runner finds himself in much the same position as Mr. Schwarzenegger, his top Republican opponent: fighting controversy, a challenge from the political extremes, and polls that suggest his support has stagnated since the campaign started.
Core Democrats have so far not been inspired by Lt. Governor Bustamante, and a court decision this week sharpened attention on his improper use of campaign cash. For all replacement candidates, Wednesday's debate surely marked the start of a pivotal moment. For Bustamante, it is a final opportunity to mobilize a skeptical base and cement his lead.
"I don't think any of the candidates have wowed the voters," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "And if you look at Bustamante now versus where he was six weeks ago, he's treading water - his message has not resonated."
The same could be said of Schwarzenegger, who probably dispelled some doubts about his knowledge of the issues Wednesday, but has yet to build on his celebrity. Bustamante, however, arguably has greater natural advantages. For one, the state is dominated by Democrats, and he is the only major Democrat in the field. Moreover, Schwarzenegger is splitting the smaller conservative vote with Tom McClintock.
While Bustamante has parlayed this position into front- runner status, he has failed to unify his party. Though Democrats make up 44 percent of California's registered voters, recent polls have put Bustamante's support no higher than 30 percent.
Partly, that is because of his missteps. Even before the campaign began, Bustamante was under scrutiny for his close connection to native American tribes. Once, when he was Speaker of the Assembly, he let representatives of tribal gambling use his Capitol office for an evening when they were lobbying against a bill to create a gambling commission.
Since the recall race started, Bustamante has received more than $5 million from tribes. He received contributions larger than the $21,200 per-person maximum - many from tribes - and put them into an account from a previous campaign. Monday, a Sacramento county judge told Bustamante to stop using the old account to circumvent the recall limits.
"A lot of people really resent the shell game he was playing," says Barbara O'Connor, a communications professor at California State University at Sacramento, who has sat in on recall focus groups.
A more pressing problem, she and others say, is that Democrats haven't been energized by the idea of a Bustamante regime.
That's obvious the moment Maggie Gee speaks. As the president of the Berkeley Democratic Club, she acknowledges that she should be more excited about supporting Bustamante as a fallback should Governor Davis be recalled. But she can't seem to summon the emotion. "I'd prefer maybe another Democrat, but he's who we've got," she says.
When asked what she dislikes about Bustamante, she suggests that he is not a team player - he was less willing than other Democrats to help her club, she says. Some other Democrats, meanwhile, have been slow to forgive him for ignoring the " 'No' on recall" message in favor of " 'Yes' on Bustamante."
From the beginning, Bustamante has had a peculiar mission, given that the people he needs to bring to the polls to win the replacement election are also among those most likely to vote "No" on the recall - making his victory irrelevant.
The lieutenant governor, however, has been reaching out. Known as a moderate during his six years in the California Assembly, Bustamante now highlights his more liberal side. He has called for regulation of gas prices, raising taxes on the rich, and he strongly backed the new law to give illegal immigrants the right to apply for a driver's license.
According to conventional political wisdom, it would seem an odd move. Candidates usually run to the center in general elections. But with multiple people in the field splintering the vote, candidates have played the recall as a primary, running to the extremes in an attempt to woo the voters most likely to vote. And while there is no other Democrat in the race, the Green Party's Peter Camejo and Independent Arianna Huffington are drawing Bustamante ever leftward.
Many voters, however, are still waiting to be won over says Mark Petracca, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "The fact that neither Schwarzenegger nor Bustamante has changed much [in the polls] indicates that some part of the electorate is still interested in hearing what they have to say."