McClintock Ignores Clamor to Quit

Times Staff Writers

State Sen. Tom McClintock has been hearing for weeks that he is fouling up Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sprint to the California governorship -- splitting the Republican vote and costing his party its best chance at statewide office in years.

Now some GOP stalwarts have upped the ante, suggesting that McClintock could actually drag down the recall itself--as Republican partisans rethink their plans to vote against Gov. Gray Davis for fear they might hand the office to a more liberal Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

So where does all this pressure leave the conservative legislator from Thousand Oaks?


Unmoved, on message and driving hard toward an Oct. 7 election he insists he can win.

McClintock’s commitment to staying in the race has been clear in his unyielding public statements. Those who might still doubt his willingness to go his own way might be swayed by reviewing his history--one filled with lonely stands, often for lost causes.

The former assemblyman and now state senator, after all, campaigned for Barry Goldwater for president at age 8 and battled California’s last two Republican governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, who helped push McClintock so far outside the party establishment that he received little formal GOP backing in his previous runs for statewide office.

The sometimes lonely backbencher, his ideas ignored in the Democrat-dominated Senate, suddenly finds himself the standard-bearer of true conservatives, perhaps paving the way for a future run for governor. Thrust into the public, he receives slaps on the back, shouts of “Beat Arnold!” and even tears of apparent devotion.

McClintock, 47, normally holds his narrow lips pressed tightly together. But, asked about the throng that greeted him enthusiastically at an anti-car-tax rally in Anaheim last Thursday, he broke into a wide smile and conceded: “It felt good.”

“The emotion in people’s eyes was very real,” he went on. “It’s something I’ve never seen in politics. It’s people not just caring but riveted on the future. It really is democracy coming alive.”

McClintock repeated again Tuesday that he is long past the point of leaving the race, having committed to thousands of donors and supporters to stay the course.

“I made a promise when I entered this race that I would be in it to the finish line,” he said, “and I keep my promises.”

Earlier, McClintock said in an interview that Schwarzenegger’s beliefs are so unclear he could not, in good conscience, turn his support over to the actor.

“How can I get out of the race, when I don’t even understand what he believes in?” he said. “I certainly don’t know. Do you?”

Schwarzenegger on Tuesday suggested for the first time that McClintock should consider getting out of the race, lest he hand the election to the Democrats. And Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) endorsed the actor, saying that a split GOP could even “put at risk” the recall itself, as conservatives might shy away from ousting the governor if they thought Bustamante would succeed him.

Although he insists he bears no ill will toward the GOP establishment, McClintock and party leaders have a somewhat rocky history. Last year, for example, McClintock was outspent 5-to-1 by Steve Westly in the race for state controller, and lost to Westly by fewer than 17,000 votes. The Republican party, focused more on the top of the ticket, came to his aid too late and cost him the election, some McClintock supporters believe.

And McClintock has particular animus for Wilson, whom he called “one of the worst” governors in state history, largely because he approved a record tax increase. Of Wilson’s onetime staffers, now working for Schwarzenegger, McClintock says they support “bigger and ever-more-expensive government at a time when the growth of government can no longer be sustained by the economy.”

Polls unconnected to the candidates have found McClintock lagging but gaining ground on Bustamante and Schwarzenegger, who lead the race to replace Davis if he is recalled. A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, released over the weekend, found Bustamante backed by 28% of likely voters, Schwarzenegger favored by 26% and McClintock third at 14%.

Many analysts believe most of McClintock’s votes would go to Schwarzenegger if the state senator dropped out. But the maverick lawmaker views the race differently. Because he moved up 9 percentage points from his showing in the institute’s previous poll, McClintock said he was “on the move” while the actor’s relatively stable support from about one-quarter of voters leaves him “dead in the water.”

With only a fraction of Schwarzenegger’s money, McClintock throws himself into multiple “free” media opportunities a day -- radio and television interviews. He believes that after polls show him moving even closer to the actor, Republicans will move to his column, realizing he can win.

Some analysts say that, even in defeat, McClintock’s high profile this year as California’s bellwether conservative could help him springboard into the 2006 governor’s race.

Though McClintock insists he is concentrating on this campaign, even his supporters concede the recall could be a setup for the future.

“It’s very possible” that McClintock could run for governor again in three years, said John Feliz, his top campaign strategist. “Didn’t Ronald Reagan run for president in ’76 and get elected in 1980? How did he do that? With the base he put together in 1976.”

Reagan ran against a sitting Republican president, Gerald Ford, and the GOP establishment in 1976, Feliz noted. At first his positions seemed extremely conservative, Feliz said, but by 1980 the party had come to him.

“This whole thing is about ideas,” Feliz said. “With Tom, the Republican Party is able to advance a coherent vision for California.”

Indeed, even some Democrats have praised McClintock for having a firm set of convictions that he’s able to present clearly to voters. As he heads into tonight’s debate and his first face-to-face confrontation with Schwarzenegger, many of McClintock’s stands set him apart from the field. He is anti-abortion, anti-gun control, against government recognition of gay partnerships and pro-death penalty.

He has pledged to oppose all new taxes and to try to eliminate the state Coastal Commission.

“McClintock’s rise has been nothing short of remarkable: Here’s a guy who potentially -- other than the winner -- may be the person who stands to gain the most out of the recall election,” said Kam Kuwata, a Democratic consultant who is not involved in the recall race. “If he sticks it out, he will come out of this campaign as the leader of maybe a quarter of the electorate.”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political analyst, agreed that a strong showing in the election, less than two weeks away, could position McClintock for the next gubernatorial election. But if McClintock pulls just enough votes to deny Schwarzenegger a victory this time, she said, “he could become a pariah among Republicans.”

Schwarzenegger’s increasingly contentious stance seems to only confirm to McClintock that he is scoring points, especially on days like the one late last week when he visited conservative radio talk show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, who had gathered hundreds of supporters in an Anaheim hotel to sign petitions to abolish the state’s car tax.

The raucous crowd cheered McClintock as he derided the tax as one of the worst on the books. As he worked a line of hundreds of fans who waited to sign petitions and meet the hosts of the “John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640), many urged him to “hang in there” and “keep going.”

They said they were upset, not just by the tripling of the car tax but by other issues, including Davis’ recent signing of a bill allowing illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

Kristen Scott, a 21-year-old in blond dreadlocks and a “Mommy’s Little Monster” T-shirt, said she was sick and tired of illegal immigrants from Mexico getting special treatment, including junior college admission and tuition aid.

“They break the law and they get rewarded. What is that?” Scott said. “I think he is the one candidate who would do something.”

To those who wanted to know how he would govern with all those Democrats controlling the Legislature, McClintock said he would simply send crucial measures -- reversing the driver’s license law and reforming worker’s compensation -- straight to the voters in the form of referendums.

That seemed to be good enough for many at the rally. Several told the candidate they had been backing Schwarzenegger but were switching allegiances.

McClintock said he thinks a lot of voters may finally be coming around to views he has espoused for 20 years. And no celebrity is going to push him aside now.

“If the most qualified candidate has to step aside every time a millionaire casts a lonely eye on a public office, then we’ve lost something very important in our democracy,” he said. “This isn’t a lark for me; it’s what I’ve devoted my entire adult life to achieve for my state. And we’ve now reached a time when those reforms can no longer be postponed.”