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Decision Likely to Help Davis

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis appears to benefit the most from Monday’s decision delaying the recall race, but like just about everything else surrounding this first-of-its-kind election, that is far from certain.

If the ruling succeeds in putting off the vote until March, when Democrats hold their presidential primary in California, the turnout of party loyalists could swell, presumably benefiting the Democratic incumbent. A delay could also provide a few more months for the economy to improve, spreading good cheer and perhaps blunting some of the pocketbook anger that has fueled the recall drive.

“It gives him more time to repair his relations with the electorate,” said Kevin Spillane, a GOP strategist in Sacramento. “It gives more time for the perceived flaws of his opponents to emerge.”

But there are risks for Davis, as well. A March election could send Californians to the polls in the midst of yet another ugly budget fight. There could also be a ballot measure to repeal the legislation that Davis recently signed allowing illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. That could bring more conservatives to the polls, presumably dampening Davis’ chances of surviving the ouster effort.

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“By next March, Davis could be negotiating a very difficult budget and defending a very unpopular decision on driver’s licenses,” said Dan Schnur, another Republican strategist in Sacramento. “That’s not the best environment in which to fight a recall.”

For each of the candidates seeking to replace Davis, a delay would create both problems and opportunities. If the election is delayed until March, candidates would switch from a race run on an egg-timer schedule to a more leisurely campaign unfolding over the course of several months. But they would have to find ways to maintain their momentum and find the money to finance months of campaigning on which no one had counted.

The international media interest would almost surely die out quickly, drying up the attention that has helped sustain Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state Sen. Tom McClintock. Yet each would have a chance to build his grass-roots support, improve stump performances and, in Bustamante’s case, raise money at a less frantic pace.

A delay until March would force McClintock to run a recall race at the same time he is seeking reelection to the state Senate.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has no problem gaining notice, could worry less about his mistakes being magnified, and could benefit from having more time to recover when he does misstep. But the movie star would also have to undergo many more months of scrutiny -- something he didn’t bargain for in a 60-day contest.

“He wanted a limited campaign, to compress the time he could be attacked,” said Spillane, who is rooting for Schwarzenegger. “It gives the media and the Democrats more time to go after him.”

In recent days, Republican Party leaders have worked to push McClintock from the race and consolidate support behind Schwarzenegger in hopes of ensuring that Davis is not replaced by Bustamante, the sole major Democrat running.

But the court decision suddenly raised the possibility of the GOP field splintering further. Businessman Bill Simon Jr., who quit the race last month for lack of support could get back in. So could Peter V. Ueberroth, who quit earlier this month saying the compressed schedule did not allow him enough time to run the sort of campaign he needed.

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Under the rules of the recall, their names -- along with 133 others -- remain on the ballot. An aide said Monday that Simon might get back into the contest if the vote is held in March. Schnur, who was Ueberroth’s chief strategist, said the question was premature.

A vote in March might allow even more candidates to get into the race. State law requires that the ballot be set 59 days before the election, and some election-law experts said a candidate who decided in January to join a March ballot would have a strong case to be included.

In addition to Republicans, that could draw in new Democratic candidates, particularly if Bustamante has trouble sustaining his campaign.

Turnout, as ever, would be a crucial factor in a March election. And that could depend on at least two variables.

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If Democrats still have a vigorous presidential nominating fight underway, that could draw their voters to the polls. But a truly contested presidential primary has not happened in California for years.

On the other hand, if a planned referendum to reverse the driver’s license bill qualifies for the ballot, it could inspire Republicans to cast ballots in significant numbers. A ballot initiative backed by liberal groups that would make it easier for the Legislature to approve tax increases is already scheduled for the March vote, and it, too, could have an impact.

If the court ruling is overturned, and the election remains as scheduled on Oct. 7, Davis would probably gain from the current uncertainty.

“It simply adds to voter frustration, voter confusion,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scholar at USC. “We’ve seen time and again when it comes to initiatives that when Californians have doubts about something, they tend to vote no.”

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Having the U.S. Supreme Court step in and order the election to proceed would potentially hand Davis and his fellow Democrats a rallying cry.

Already, the governor repeatedly has said that the recall fits into a pattern of Republican attempts to negate Democratic election victories. He has cited the Supreme Court decision barring a presidential ballot recount in Florida in 2000 as an example.

Having the Supreme Court intervene in this election, too, could fire up Democratic partisans.

The scenario “has Florida written all over it,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). “The court located in the relevant state rules that votes must be counted accurately. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court steps in and rules that whatever procedure favors Republicans must be imposed.”

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Even before the 9th Circuit tossed its monkey wrench, a Times Poll last month found a good deal of confusion surrounding the recall. The survey showed nearly one in three likely voters puzzled over how the election -- with its two-part, novella-length ballot -- was going to work, or uncertain about how to proceed with trying to vote.

While some of the confusion may have cleared up in the past few weeks, the ruling Monday pushed the contest even further into unmapped territory.

One thing seemed likely. Even if voters are frustrated, a delay could be good news for the professionals who make their living from politics.

“You’ve got to pay more money to keep the phone banks going and the advertising running,” said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist. “So those guys are thinking of cashing a few extra weeks of pay if this thing keeps going.”

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Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Matea Gold, Joe Mathews and Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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