Politics & Policy

Farewell, Cruz?

The last wild card won't be dealt.

–There might be one final wild card left in the California recall race: What if Cruz Bustamante resigns?

A Davis Democrat spread the rumor last night. Such talk could reflect tension between Davis consigliere Garry South and Bustamante handler Richie Ross. Normally, Garry destroys Davis’s opponents. But he has been on sabbatical helping Joe Lieberman run for president. He clearly realizes it is rather late in the game to gut Arnold.

Two days ago, the Los Angeles Times’s front page reported sordid conduct in Schwarzenegger’s past. And today’s Los Angeles Times alleges that Arnold is a serial groper (speaking of which, Bill Clinton returns again this weekend for Gray Davis). But the Times is not trusted. And right-wing, pro-Arnold radio hosts may react harshly to a perceived conspiracy. In fact, editors debated for two weeks whether and how to proceed with today’s front-page story. Now, it’s the paper’s motives just days before the election that will be debated. The reality: If editors did not publish this article, they would have faced a revolt within the newsroom. But do Arnold’s voters remain cognitively dissonant?

Will last-minute hits on Arnold help Davis defeat the recall? They’re more likely to do that than help Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante’s TV spots are like Tom Bradley ads. Bradley, who lost for governor in 1982 to George Deukmejian, was a tall African-American man with a nice voice. Bustamante is a short Latino man with a nice voice. In the Bustamante spots, an understated Cruz says, “I’d appreciate your consideration as you vote for governor.” Actually, it is not Bustamante’s delivery that threatens, it is his policy. Anyway, his contrived humility has not trumped Arnold’s strong talking-head performance.

As the campaign began, the Davis people had expected early, not late, reporting of Arnold’s past. But accounts were slow and sanitized. Reporting of prior Arnold statements would substitute “make love to” for “f***.” Perhaps that partly explains why people didn’t care about Arnold’s Oui magazine interview. Moreover, reporters don’t like Davis, and they were attracted to Arnold’s triumvirate (abortion rights, gay rights, gun control). Political reporting soon dropped to the lowest common denominator: entertainment reporting. Davis strategists miscalculated: They had expected Democrat Bustamante and Republican McClintock to tackle Mr. Universe. Neither candidate would do the heavy lifting.

“Governor Schwarzenegger” yesterday previewed his first one hundred days in office. Schwarzenegger aides suggested it showed appropriate confidence. Davis aides suggested it showed disrespectful arrogance.

Looking back, Arnold rose in the polls, especially relative to Cruz, because (a) Indian casino money to Cruz became an issue; (b) driver’s licenses for illegal aliens hurt Cruz as much as Davis; and (c) Cruz spent millions and millions on dumb ads. Example: “After voting ‘No’ on the recall, you have the right and responsibility to vote for governor.” That line and his overall theme reflected the worldview of the original ruling of the three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court: that nonwhites are too stupid to vote competently. Cruz TV spot theme: “I know it will be hard to find my name on the ballot.” That’s because there are 135 candidates, and 80 versions (one per assembly district) of the ballot. Arnold’s campaign people, instead of messing up their TV spots like Bustamante’s, simply mailed 80 versions of perforated ballot instructions (e.g., “Arnold is number 49 on your ballot. He is second from the bottom on page two of your ballot.”) You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to think of that idea, but it somehow escaped Bustamante’s team.

On Wednesday, the tripling of the state car tax went into effect. Few voters grasp that the new level is simply status quo ante–it was this high before then-Governor Pete Wilson reduced it. Since vehicle renewals are staggered throughout the year, only a small percentage of renewal notices will go out in the next few days. But it’s the major press coverage of the issue that haunts Davis.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County alone, voters have requested 547,000 absentee ballots. A private statewide poll of absentee voters suggests that 57 percent voted “Yes” on the recall. If true, Davis needs, to compensate, a decisive “No” on the Election Day recall vote.

Still, top-level Democrats feel their only chance is to defeat the recall, not elect Cruz. But will Bustamante really help his political future, such as it is, by quitting? Probably not, so why should he? As for Davis, a Bustamante exit would make the recall more partisan (Dem.-Gray vs. Rep.-Arnold). But would Latino voters turn out, with Bustamante gone? The final irony: If it’s just Tom-Arnold, with no fear of Bustamante, then McClintock could regain lost momentum. Perhaps that prospect would scare up more Dems.

We can only grope at the possibilities.

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.

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