Politics in the Center Ring

LOS ANGELES — Porn stars, movie actors, smut peddlers running for governor! Even comedians are dismayed. "This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they founded this Republic," comedian Bill Maher solemnly intoned. "One of their greatest fears was putting too much power in the hands of the howling masses."

The masses in California have been howling for years — with boredom. Involvement in politics has been dwindling.

When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, 79 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. When Jerry Brown won the office in 1974, turnout was 64 percent. Pete Wilson's election in 1990 brought out 59 percent of voters. Last year, barely 50 percent turned out for Gray Davis's re-election.

The news media responded by not paying much attention. The joke was that the local news wouldn't cover a political debate unless the candidates got into a freeway chase. Suddenly, all that apathy and cynicism seem to be turning around.

California's gubernatorial recall election is getting equal billing with crime on the local news. Public interest in politics has exploded. Last year, two months before the election, only 24 percent of California voters said they were very interested in the gubernatorial campaign, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. This month, in a Gallup Poll of California voters, 71 percent said they were "very" or "extremely" interested in the recall.

Alex Ben Block, editor of TelevisionWeek, said, "People in California, who usually just don't care and are too blasé ... suddenly [have] become involved, excited, talking about [the candidates] ... jumping on bandwagons, jumping off bandwagons." Sure, that's partly the prospect of electing a movie star. But it's something else, too — angry voters taking power into their own hands to oust a massively unpopular governor.

Gov. Davis — cautious, calculating, deal-making — looks to the voters like the face of the political class. "We have a dysfunctional government," GOP political consultant Allen Hoffenblum said. "The voters hate it. They can't do anything about the state Legislature. But they can do something about Gray Davis."

And it looks as if they might. Every poll of California voters shows Davis losing.

Originally, Davis planned to depict the recall campaign as a conservative coup perpetrated by a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But Darrell Issa, the conservative Republican congressman who bankrolled the recall effort, dropped out of the race to replace Davis. And Arnold Schwarzenegger got in.

Does Davis have a Plan B? Of course. Run against the process. More precisely, run against the circus. In a television interview, he called the recall "an insult to the 8 million people who took the time to vote last November," adding, "Voters don't want that. They want us focusing on their problems, not just campaigning endlessly."

Some Democrats are saying that Davis should see the handwriting on the wall and resign, turning his office over to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is the only serious Democratic contender on the ballot to replace Davis. California law says the recall election would go on anyway, with the voters choosing a new governor for the remaining three years of Davis's term. Being the incumbent might help Bustamante — or it might not. Voters might see Davis's stepping aside as a crass political maneuver. And they might see Bustamante as a stand-in for Davis.

Last week's Los Angeles Times poll also suggests that Schwarzenegger may have already lost his lead. In the balloting for which candidate should replace Davis if he is recalled, the Times poll puts Bustamante — the lone serious Democratic contender — ahead of Schwarzenegger, 35 percent to 22 percent.

The poll shows Latino voters tilting decisively for Bustamante, the state's highest-ranking Latino. Wilson, who is co-chairman of the Schwarzenegger campaign, has been deeply distrusted by Latino voters ever since he got re-elected in 1994 on a campaign to deny public services to illegal immigrants.

Schwarzenegger has to split the Republican vote with conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock (12 percent in the Times poll). Former Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth, a Republican running as an independent, is drawing another 7 percent. The Times poll will increase pressure on McClintock and Ueberroth to drop out of the race. But it's not clear that their support would transfer to Schwarzenegger. McClintock's hard-core conservatives might choose not to vote, and Ueberroth's supporters might very well prefer Bustamante to Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger does have a credibility problem. A Time/CNN poll asked voters, "Do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger is capable of governing the state of California?" The answer was yes — but by a narrow margin (45 percent to 39 percent).

Schwarzenegger's defense is to sign up supporters with impeccable Establishment credentials, such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett and former Secretary of State George Shultz. But that tactic might undercut Schwarzenegger's message. "I want to clean up Sacramento," he said in declaring his candidacy. "I want to go in there, reform the system so it's back in the people's hands." With Wilson and his team of Sacramento insiders running his campaign, it may be hard for Schwarzenegger to make the case that he is an authentic anti-Establishment outsider.