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The Secret Weapon
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“When I’m going to be head of this government….”

That’s what California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante said last night. Bustamante was among the five candidates who showed up for the first debate for governor. Also at Walnut Creek: Normal Republican Tom McClintock, independent Republican Peter Ueberroth, the Green party’s Peter Camejo, and the independent populist Arianna Huffington.

Remember the phony spin: “‘No’ on recall, ‘yes’ on Bustamante.” Bustamante means undertaker. And last night, in effect, he wrote a political obit for Gov. Gray Davis. But was it he premature?

Flashback: Last spring the recall campaign was going nowhere fast. Enter Rep. Darrell Issa. He spent nearly $3 million, mainly to buy petition signatures. Then he turned in his candidate papers. But a funny thing happened on the way to his news conference. Issa changed his mind.

Issa had planned a largely self-funded dual campaign. His recall committee would make the case against Gov. Gray Davis. His campaign committee would make the case for Issa. Now, with Issa gone, we have candidates. But there is no longer a campaign for the recall. This is not good for Republicans.

Yet, there is a growing campaign against the recall. Its credible messenger is the popular U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein. In 30-second TV spots, she seems moderate and reasonable. At one point, more than 40 percent of Democrats wanted to recall Davis. That defection rate has declined markedly.

As the majority for the recall erodes, support for Arnold Schwarzenegger drops. That’s because his candidacy pumped up the numbers. But Schwarzenegger remains the anti-Davis. Schwarzenegger defines the race. Will Arnold’s repeated flip-flops penetrate his Teflon by Sept 12? That’s when state Republicans convene in Los Angeles. That convention won’t endorse anyone. But Schwarzenegger must own it — or, at least, rent it.

Gray Davis has a secret weapon. It’s Cruz Bustamante.

This is the man who in college was a member of MEChA. This “Chicano” organization had as its slogan: “For those of our race — everything. For those not of our race-nothing.” Asked four times on national television to repudiate that slogan, Bustamante punted.

MEChA says the U.S. took the southwest from Mexico, and this land should be returned. Bustamante once described himself as a “moderate” member of the racist MEChA. Radio talk-show host Larry Elder, himself African American, said, “That’s like being a ‘moderate’ member of the KKK.”

This recall election remains complex. For example, what does a possible Bustamante win mean? It might scare people, even a few Republicans, into voting “no” on the recall. What would it be like, anyway, they wonder, without Gray Davis to kick around?

Davis will sign legislation giving drivers’ licenses to people here illegally. Like McClintock, Schwarzenegger opposes alien drivers. Unlike McClintock, Arnold apparently won’t oppose subsidy college tuition for illegals. These issues don’t help Cruz.

Full disclosure: Cruz Bustamante became speaker of the state assembly in 1996. One of his first acts was replacing me on the California Coastal Commission. It wasn’t personal. I believed in private property.

Bustamante believes in private property — for Indians. He said, “We don’t tell Hewlett-Packard how many computers to sell, why should we tell Native Americans how many slot machines they should have?” (Will Milton Friedman defect from Arnold to Cruz?) Bustamante’s ecumenical views resonate. Indian-gambling interests now pay for much of his campaign.

Tom McClintock backs sovereignty for Native Americans. McClintock is a second choice for Indian givers. The betting is they will fund much of Bustamante’s campaign, plus “independent expenditures” for Bustamante, maybe some I.E.s even for McClintock. Will Indian millions pay only for positive ads? Or will they gut Schwarzenegger?

Schwarzenegger playfully associates Bustamante with Davis. Will Schwarzenegger or his ads get harsh?

Last year, more Californians declared themselves “permanent absentees.” They don’t even need an application. The Republican absentees start soon. Unless Schwarzenegger crumbles very soon, many pragmatic conservatives might vote Schwarzenegger-by-mail. That September Republican convention could be the key to that absentee vote for McClintock. Regardless, absentees become relatively more important, as overall turnout declines.

A negative end game could depress turnout; that may mean an uncertain outcome.

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.



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