In California, the Political Earth Moves

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Arnold Schwarzenegger greets supporters outside NBC studios in Burbank

It's an overused cliche that California is known for seismic tremors, but there's no getting around the fact that yesterday’s dramatic upheavals in the recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis were, well, earthshaking. Voters woke up Thursday morning to a completely different race. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shock-and-awe style announcement on The Tonight Show that he would run was the top headline, but Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s decision to jump into the race was just as big. It gave the signal that the Democrats have abandoned Davis, deciding it’s better to cut the Governor loose and run a candidate to replace him than be dragged down with him. Undoubtedly there are more aftershocks to come between now and Saturday’s deadline for candidates to file, but here’s a look at the new race:

  • Davis is dead. Maybe it’s risky to say so because the Governor has come back so many times, but Gray has little to no hope of surviving this mess. Years from now he’ll probably look back at August 6th as the day his political career died. Ironically, the day started out well for him: Senator Dianne Feinstein, the state’s most popular pol, announced she would not be jumping into the race. Feinstein, who survived a recall attempt in 1983 when she was Mayor of San Francisco, called the Davis recall a destructive carnival. But while she refused to join the circus, she didn’t expressly call on all Democrats to unite behind Davis, and she had some pretty harsh words for the Governor and his hard-hitting style.

    Feinstein’s announcement left the rest of the state’s Democrats still panicking over whether they should stand by Davis or put forward a replacement candidate. But once Schwarzenegger said he would run, they couldn’t take the pressure. Twelve Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation held a worried conference call and agreed they needed a Democrat on the ballot, their top choice being Bustamante or former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta. Shortly afterward, Bustamante, who had up until now stood solidly behind the Governor, announced he would run. With Schwarzenegger representing Republicans and Bustamante representing Democrats on the ballot, no one is standing behind Davis. And the Governor is going to have a much harder time convincing voters to listen to his sensible but desperate cries that the recall is wrong. It may be wrong, but most voters probably see it as inevitable now.

  • Let the real campaign begin. With Davis effectively done for, this campaign changes from one about the recall to a more standard campaign between Democrats and Republicans. That doesn’t mean the circus has left town. Only $3,500 and 65 signatures keep anyone who wants to run from being on the ballot, and Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman and pinup Angelyne are all in the race, along with a cigarette retailer from Napa county, a bounty hunter from Sacramento and a satellite project manager from Long Beach named Michael Jackson. As Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Business Council, told the Los Angeles Times, “This is the political equivalent of streaking: You show up, you run across the room naked and you get attention.”

    But now some real grownups are getting in the race. (Yes, it’s odd to call a six-time Mr. Universe and the star of Kindergarten Cop a political grownup, but Schwarzenegger has been preparing for this for years, unlike say, Coleman.) Several Republicans may file soon, though the recall's biggest backer, GOP Congressman Darrell Issa, ceded the field to Arnold. On the Democratic side Bustamante will file today and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, another Democrat, will announce he is running. The campaign will hopefully shift from debates on whether a pornographer can run a state to who has the best plan to save the world’s fifth largest economy from imploding in red ink.

  • Strategies will soon emerge. Now that the race has been redefined, how will the candidates actually score on election day? Schwarzenegger is the obvious frontrunner based on name recognition alone, which matters a lot when the other candidates have less than 60 days to introduce themselves to voters. But Arnold will face competition both on the right and the left, from the Democrats and from more conservative GOPers. And will the Terminator try to get through the campaign without laying out his stands on the issues? He gave no signal of his beliefs on The Tonight Show, except that he thinks Davis is hurting the state. He’s always said he is a fiscal conservative and a social moderate who’s pro-choice, but that’s about it. Will he lay out a plan to deal with the state’s budget deficit, crumbling education system or skyrocketing health-care costs? Or just try to coast on name recognition?

    And as the media frenzy goes forward, California’s voters are going to have to try and stop focusing on the circus of the recall itself, and think about what the results will mean for the state’s future. No matter how insane the next two months are going to be, the winner of it all will have to get the state back on the right track. Otherwise, all 35 million residents are going to have a wicked hangover on the day after the vote.