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Issa Banking on Big Payoff in Recall Drive

Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Republican Party billed its banquet Saturday night in Costa Mesa as a salute to Flag Day, but the star speaker, Darrell Issa, bounded to the stage and quipped, “This is the farewell party for Gray Davis, isn’t it?”

The ballroom erupted in cheers. Party loyalists waved newly made Issa for Governor signs. For the grinning Republican congressman, standing before a giant American flag, the scene affirmed unmistakably that the $700,000 he has invested so far in the campaign to dump the governor of California has begun to pay off.

“We are going to have an election that will throw Gray Davis out,” he told the crowd.

If a recall election occurs, it will be thanks in large part to the money supplied by Issa, a businessman from the San Diego suburbs who reports his net worth at more than $100 million. Less clear is whether Issa, 49, could emerge as the voters’ pick from a potentially crowded field of candidates to replace the Democratic governor.

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In the six years since Issa launched his first campaign for public office, he has defined himself as a staunch conservative, a profile that clashes with a California electorate that has shunned Republicans in recent elections.

The difficulty he faces now in broadening his appeal to moderates was apparent on a weekend campaign swing around Southern California. As he rode in the back of a Ford Expedition from the hills above Santa Barbara through Los Angeles to Costa Mesa, Issa struggled to articulate consistent positions on a host of issues, from guns and immigration to the state fiscal crisis.

His votes against gun control earned him an “A” rating last year from the National Rifle Assn. but Issa vowed Saturday to support renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban this year. “If we were to undo it, it would simply make it more of a failure,” he said.

On Proposition 187, the ballot measure to deny public services to immigrants, Issa staked out a clear position during his unsuccessful 1998 campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination: He backed it despite qualms about a provision barring children of illegal immigrants from public schools. But Saturday, Issa said he had voted against Proposition 187. “I spoke on both sides of that all along,” he explained.

Issa also backpedaled from his call in the Senate race to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. “Getting rid of the National Endowment for the Arts is a red-meat statement that one makes in a primary,” he said.

Issa said California’s arts subsidies “should be up for discussion” in closing the state’s record $38-billion budget gap, but he lamented “an absence of art programs in inner cities.”

“Are there areas in which support of the arts can be used effectively for the common good or in fact to meet an appropriate social agenda? I would say, yes, there are,” he said.

Only Candidate So Far

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So far, Issa is the only declared candidate to replace Davis in what would be California’s first gubernatorial recall election -- if it qualifies for the ballot. Republicans weighing whether to run include actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Simon Jr., the GOP nominee who lost to Davis last year. On the Democratic side, speculation has focused on U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

To plot strategy for the possible governor’s race, Issa has hired Ronald Reagan campaign veteran Ken Khachigian. Issa has given his campaign $100,000 in start-up money and opened offices in San Diego and Orange counties. He has hired a pollster and more than a dozen other staffers, including a researcher to dig up dirt on rivals. (“Lots of targets of opportunity,” Issa campaign manager Scott Taylor said.)

But even Republican analysts give Issa slim odds of overcoming his conservative background on social issues. He has opposed legal abortion and gun control, for instance, which polls say put him at odds with most California voters. GOP consultant Allen Hoffenblum said Issa’s foes are apt to defeat him by painting him as “part of the right-wing cabal, quote unquote.”

Still, by putting up the money to turn a Davis recall election from an improbable dream into a likely reality, Issa has galvanized the conservative base of a state party beleaguered by its mounting record of defeats. Issa’s Rescue California committee is paying petition circulators to gather the nearly 900,000 voter signatures needed to qualify the recall for the ballot. The signature deadline is Sept. 2; if enough valid signatures are tallied, voters will decide whether to recall Davis and, at the same time, who would replace him if he is thrown out of office.

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Like other wealthy candidates, Issa has had trouble matching his own donations -- both to the recall effort and to his gubernatorial committee -- with money from others. On Saturday’s campaign swing, he paid a private visit to real-estate titan David Murdock in Westlake Village. He told fellow passengers the meeting would take half an hour, but stayed for nearly two hours.

“It was hard to get away from a meeting with someone throwing large amounts of money at you,” Issa joked. “The problem was it’s potential money.”

Regardless of his prospects for becoming governor, analysts say Issa appears to have touched off an historic campaign.

“In California, sometimes there’s a fuse lit, and at the end there’s a big bang,” said Don Sipple, a Republican media strategist. “This could very well be one of those occasions. The schism between the people of California and the politicians of California has very rarely been as wide as it is now. You get the feeling that there is increasing frustration among the governed with those who govern them.”

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As he moved around the state, Issa tapped that frustration, most often by invoking the fiscal crisis that could lead to higher taxes and a vast rollback in public services, including teacher layoffs and hospital cuts.

“If this was California Inc., then Chairman and CEO Gray Davis would be in jail,” Issa told Republicans on Saturday at a party breakfast in the Santa Ynez Valley. He accused Davis of lying during his reelection campaign about the depth of California’s fiscal troubles, a charge the governor has denied. The state’s $38.2-billion budget hole is more than triple the governor’s estimate during the campaign.

To turn the state around, Issa called on Republicans to unite behind a single gubernatorial candidate, preferably himself, willing to “be hated, be hard, be difficult, be cantankerous” on budget issues.

But while he insisted a recall election would force candidates to specify how they would solve the state’s financial troubles, he offered no hint of what unpopular steps he might take as governor.

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On the drive to Orange County, he said California could survive the fiscal crisis without raising taxes. But he also said he would support tax hikes if voters approve them. Issa described the Davis recall as a “tax revolt,” but called nonetheless for higher taxes to build more freeways; the state’s gas tax would be indexed to rise at the rate of inflation to ensure highway spending does not decline.

Schools, Issa said, should be largely spared from budget cuts; he opposes teacher layoffs. But the state should “look at their pay growing slower than it has been in the past if we’re going to get more teachers in the classroom and more dollars applied to students,” he said.

In general, Issa called for wage and hiring freezes, along with the elimination of “waste, fraud and abuse,” but he did not say what specific spending he would cut beyond the $18 billion in reductions proposed by Davis. (The governor has also called for $8 billion in new taxes.)

For his part, Davis has dismissed Issa as a “right-wing” politician seeking a rerun of the gubernatorial race that Republicans lost last year. In a radio interview Saturday, Davis called the recall effort “a devious plan to undo the express will of the electorate last November.”

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He told the Orange County Register last week: “It’s being organized and financed by a bunch of rich losers.”

Finessing Issues

To undermine Issa, Davis surrogates have publicized his conservative stands on social issues, starting with abortion. Issa opposes legal abortion except in cases of rape, incest or the potential death of a mother, but pledged in the interview to “live within the laws” that protect abortion rights.

In Huntington Beach, Issa explained his position on offshore oil drilling -- another touchstone issue that Democrats have sought to use against him and many other California Republicans. As he rode past the oil platforms off the coast, he said he voted for a measure to bar offshore drilling in California, but supported energy exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. In California, he said, new offshore drilling should be reserved for times of major crisis in U.S. supply, such as a cutoff in flow from the Middle East.

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“I view the California coast as a true emergency,” he said.


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