Calif. voters oust Davis, polls indicate

Actor Schwarzenegger appears to have trounced Bustamante in recall

2 million absentee ballots cast

Victor faces budget deficit estimated at $8 billion

October 08, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES - In a stunning finale to a tumultuous campaign, angry California voters fired Gov. Gray Davis less than a year into his term and lifted movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor's chair, according to exit polling and early returns in yesterday's recall election.

Schwarzenegger, in his first try for elective office, scored a resounding victory in spite of a withering string of last-minute newspaper reports about his alleged improper sexual conduct.

Among the keys was his backing from independent voters and stronger-than-expected support from white women, the exit poll showed.

The one-time body-building champion ran as an outsider who would fundamentally change state government. A Republican married to Democratic royalty - Kennedy relative Maria Shriver - he vowed to "kick [the] butt" of organized labor, Indian gaming interests and big-spending Democratic lawmakers.

Davis, a Democrat, became the first American governor in 82 years to be dumped in a recall election.

Schwarzenegger, speaking yesterday outside a polling place not far from his home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, said it was "cool" to be able to vote for himself for the first time.

He had been attacked in the governor's TV ads for, among other things, not voting in 13 of the past 21 elections.

His triumph recalled that of another figure from the entertainment world, Ronald Reagan, who was elected California governor in 1966.

However, at the time, Reagan was a faded star, while Schwarzenegger's most recent film, Terminator 3, is one of the top-grossing productions in movie history. And while Reagan spent decades honing his political speeches before he ran, Schwarzenegger had relatively little experience when he became a candidate two months ago.

The new governor will take over as soon as the election results are certified, a process that could take until mid-November.

He began laying plans for his administration in recent weeks, but he will confront a state legislature dominated by Democrats and a budget gap estimated at $8 billion or more.

Californians remain deeply divided about the state's future and Schwarzenegger himself. He will enter office with a relatively high negative rating from the public, exit polling showed. A total of 49 percent of voters said they regarded Schwarzenegger favorably, while 45 percent held an unfavorable view.

Almost lost in the Hollywood tale of a 58-year-old actor's rise to power in the nation's richest and most populous state was the unprecedented fall of Davis.

The man who won re-election to a second term less than a year ago now becomes the first California governor, and only the second governor in U.S. history, to be recalled.

Cast as a power grab

Davis, whose personal unpopularity fueled the drive to dump him, had sought to cast the election as an illegitimate power grab by Republicans, who lost the past four statewide elections. But he was unable to hold the support of Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans by a significant margin.

A statewide survey of voters as they left their polling places yesterday found that, by a margin of almost three-to-one, Californians disapprove of Davis' performance as governor.

Even though the state's economy is not significantly worse than the nation's as a whole - there are signs of recovery here - only 17 percent of voters rated the state's economy as excellent or good, while 83 percent rated it not so good or poor, according to the exit poll.

Sign of voter anger

In the end, voter anger over what the public views as California's downward slide - deepened last summer by prolonged stalemate at the Capitol over a $38 billion state budget shortfall - overwhelmed Davis' efforts to frighten voters away from Schwarzenegger.

The governor and his strategists, slow to recognize the threat to his remaining three years in office, had framed the election as a head-to-head choice between himself and the actor. In recent days, Davis predicted that Schwarzenegger would become governor if the recall succeeded, essentially dismissing the prospects of the leading Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Asked yesterday whether he would support a retaliatory ballot drive to recall Schwarzenegger, as some Democrats are threatening, the governor declined to answer. Even if such an initiative is launched, it seems unlikely that Davis will be a candidate again.

Loss of party support

Exit polling showed that one in four Democratic voters, including many of those who reluctantly supported his re-election last fall, voted to recall him. And in spite of the governor's efforts to portray the recall as undemocratic, voters split evenly over whether the election had been worth it or a waste of money.

Schwarzenegger's campaign to become the leader of a state with an economy larger than all but about a half-dozen countries' turned the recall into around-the-clock obsession for this state's notoriously apolitical news media and its often tuned-out electorate.

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