Sacramento circus: That's entertainment

October 01, 2003|By Jules Witcover

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Whether Tuesday's recall election produces a new governor here, it has already reinforced California's claim as the Land of Entertainment.

At last week's debate of five Californians seeking to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the exchanges became so raucous that the moderator felt obliged to complain: "This is not Comedy Central."

A few days earlier, when a lawyer was asking a federal circuit court to postpone the recall election, he brought the house down with a slip of the lip, meaning to say "this circuit" but referring to the court as "this circus."

With 135 candidates on the ballot, The Los Angeles Times has been running photos of several of them each day. One man posed wearing boxing gloves; a mini-skirted young woman held a martini glass; another demure miss stretched a flimsy thong between her thumbs for the camera, and for the edification of the voters.

So it has gone in this most bizarre of elections - a two-tier exercise in which Californians will be asked first whether Mr. Davis should stay as governor and then which of the 135, plus write-ins, should replace him if he is recalled.

As the challengers - Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the rest - vie for Mr. Davis' job, Mr. Bustamante says the recall that could make him governor is a bad idea but runs hard for the job anyway.

Meanwhile, Mr. Davis hops about the state holding town meetings and making mea culpas to the voters for the mistakes he's made and promising to do better, but basically saying he hasn't been all that bad as California's chief executive.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, as that one debate showed, has gotten into the swing of things by tapping into his entertainment celebrity with audience-pleasing one-liners that have done little to establish his qualifications to run the nation's largest state.

In the same debate, the five chosen candidates were asked what they thought of the recall. Mr. Schwarzenegger called it "a great idea, and I thank God every day that we had Hiram Johnson, who created this more than 90 years ago."

But Mr. Johnson might have some reservations if he could see what he has wrought here this fall.

The other major Republican contender, state Sen. Tom McClintock, said, "The recall is there so the people can correct a mistake that was made at the ballot box," meaning Mr. Davis.

But Mr. Bustamante declared it "a terrible idea" that was "bad for democracy" and warned that he knew of people already "organizing to recall the next governor, if it's a Republican."

It's notable that prior to the effort to bounce Mr. Davis, only one other governor had ever been recalled, Republican Lynn J. Frazier in North Dakota in 1921, in bad economic times. But a year later he was elected to the U.S. Senate and stayed there for the next 18 years, so he was hardly ostracized by the recall.

One of the mysteries to many outsiders is why anybody would want to take over a state with a $38 billion deficit and a host of other headaches. Mr. Schwarzenegger says it's to pay back the state for all it has given him, which is plenty. Meanwhile, Californians seem to be unruffled to see their state being made a national joke by the spectacle of all those candidates on the same punch-card ballot (in six California counties) that was so discredited in Florida in 2000.

It's no secret that the Davis strategists are hoping that by Tuesday the whole fiasco will have so turned off the voters in this Democratic state that many will vote against the recall in protest, enabling Mr. Davis to squeeze by as Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. McClintock split the Republican vote on replacing him.

But the latest Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today indicated that 63 percent of likely voters surveyed were ready to give Mr. Davis the boot. The same poll had Mr. Schwarzenegger leading Mr. Bustamante, 40 percent to 25 percent, with the California circus having only one more week to run.

A show business candidate in the show business state can't be dismissed as a joke, as a B-grade movie idol named Ronald Reagan proved 37 years ago.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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