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Left Coast Notes

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Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

At some point or another in their careers, just about every governor in the union faces some sort of recall effort. Generally underfunded, usually backed by some unhinged political fringe, these crusades tend to go nowhere real fast.

Out here in California, Governor Gray Davis, re-elected to his second term last November, would love to laugh off the recall that has just been launched against him. But he can't. With the state drowning in a $35 billion deficit, with social services on the chopping block, the general malaise more than palpable and the Governor's popularity ratings slumping into the Boris Yeltsin range, Davis and his savvy political team know that he's in a potential world of trouble.

Not to say the current recall isn't pretty fringy. And it has the distinct smell of sour grapes about it. The California State Republican Party failed to win a single statewide office in last fall's election. The GOP candidate who challenged Davis, wealthy businessman and political neophyte Bill Simon Jr., ran what many considered to be one of the worst campaigns in recent history. And yet, in the past few weeks an organized campaign to recall Davis has surfaced and--surprise! surprise!--it's being spearheaded by a former Republican state legislator and by the outgoing chair of the state GOP, Shawn Steel. "The Republicans couldn't win in the real election last fall," says one LA Democratic activist. "So it looks like they want to try again."

For the recall to make the ballot, its backers need to gather about a million signatures--hardly an impossible task in a state of more than 30 million. And made even more possible by the general distaste for Gray Davis.

Even a majority of core Democratic voters rated Davis as unpopular on the eve of last November's vote. They view him as a cold and calculating, even ruthless, politician, a virtuoso fundraiser totally beholden to special interests and unresponsive to key Democratic constituencies. Even some powerful unions, like the almighty California Federation of Teachers, has been seen sniffing around the recall. The Republicans somehow see the Governor as the incarnation of V.I. Lenin (go figure). The bottom line: Almost everybody hates Gray Davis.

That explains why in last fall's election, even though he was fueled by the biggest campaign chest in state history, and he was faced by the most inept of rivals, Davis managed to squeak out his victory by an anemic five points. (When first elected in 1998, Davis danced to a nineteen-point margin of victory).

"Make no mistake, he's ripe for the pickin'" says the Democratic activist. Some of the Republicans' own internal polls confirm that notion. They show Davis as much as six points behind if the recall went on the ballot today.

Recall backers figure they need $2 million to finance their effort to qualify the measure and open the way for a special election that could depose Davis. So far there are no takers. After a raucous and divisive state convention last week, the California GOP voted to support the crusade. But with its coffers literally in the red after last November's blanket defeat, the state party offered no financial support for the measure.

The more moderate mainstays of the party establishment also tried to distance themselves from the effort. The Bush Administration's California point man, Gerry Parsky, as well as the state legislature's most respected GOP tactician, Jim Brulte, both spoke out against the recall.

But Shawn Steel, who was party chair until this past weekend, has nothing to lose by throwing himself fully into the effort. An unpredictable and--even by Republican standards--wildly politically incorrect freebooter, Steele has made an art out of flaying Parsky and the Bushies, whom he finds too timid. Now freed from the restraints of chairing the party, Steele can go whole hog on the recall.

The real question is whether or not the recall will generate any traction. A recall kickoff rally held on the steps of the California Capitol during last weekend's GOP convention drew an enthusiastic crowd of about 500. But according to New West Notes publisher and political reporter Bill Bradley, who covered the rally, it was populated mostly by an extreme-right fringe who insisted that Davis was some sort of socialist. "That message is not going to resonate with the California mainstream," says Bradley.

The danger to Davis is if some or even just one well-heeled individual decides to get behind the effort in order to mainstream it. Again, by no means an impossibility in this Golden State, which has a long history of state initiatives from both the right and the left being carried by one committed financier.

Multimillionaire and former LA Mayor Richard Riordan, who was trounced in the GOP gubernatorial primary by $10 million in negative advertising run by Democrat Davis, is thought to be interested in the campaign. But he has not spoken publicly on it, and his money is currently going into the debut of a new weekly newspaper project. Davis's defeated rival Bill Simon Jr., who could painlessly finance the recall on a solo basis, might also be tempted. But he's also considering a possible senatorial run against Barbara Boxer.

Then there's The Arnold. Schwarenegger, who last November financed passage of an after-school program state initiative, is considered the early favorite to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2006. But he's busy preparing for the summer opening of Terminator III and might just conclude it's to his political advantage to leave Davis rotting in office three more years.

Davis's nightmare is that one of these three or, worse, some motivated conservative businessman no one has yet heard of, will step forward with his checkbook. If someone does, Davis might find himself thrown overboard by much of his own party. It's not difficult to imagine one of three or four top state Democrats deciding to put their name on the ballot if a special election ever sees the light of day.

In the meantime, Gray Davis is hoping this will all fade away.

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