Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is Schwarzenegger vulnerable to ouster?

SACRAMENTO — Most of the essentials are in place for a recall campaign against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: a sagging economy, a historically late budget, a massive deficit, high voter dissatisfaction, a brewing revolt from within the governor's party, and a sponsor that has enough money to put the question on the ballot.

But, even with all that, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is facing a Sisyphean task in the campaign it has embarked on to oust Schwarzenegger from office.

For one thing, the union will have to convince voters that the effort isn't just about trying to intimidate the governor into giving them higher wages in a new contract they're seeking. But, there are broader obstacles.

The political landscape is missing the one big factor for a recall to be successful, said Garry South, a Democratic consultant and former aide to onetime Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003: a tangible event that has a direct impact on peoples' lives, such as the energy crisis during Davis' tenure. Without that, he said, the public's hostility toward Schwarzenegger doesn't go as deep as it went with Davis.

"For better or worse, Schwarzenegger has a certain superstar appeal and force of personality that allows him to wiggle out of situations that mere mortal politicians can't escape," South said. "I don't think, honestly, that he's as weak as Davis, even though his numbers have collapsed. He still has a reserve Advertisementof goodwill and public adulation that puts him in a very different category than Davis."

Still, a governor under siege needs friends at his flank, and Republican activists aren't promising protection.

The California Republican Assembly, which calls itself the "conscience of the Republican Party," is likely to bring up the topic of the recall this month at its next board meeting, at the state GOP convention in Anaheim, and its leader said he wouldn't be surprised if they voted to support the move to oust the governor from office.

"There's a lot of interest in a recall from some of our members who are frustrated by the numerous policy positions he's taken," said Mike Spence, the president of the California Republican Assembly. "I can see it passing (in a two-thirds vote of the CRA's board). He's betrayed us so many times. There's a long list of things where it turns out it might have been better if Gray Davis had stayed in office. He's doubled our debt. It's outrageous, some of the stuff the governor has done to hurt California."

Davis' ouster wouldn't have happened without the help of Democrats, who made up about a quarter of the recall vote. A similar turnout by Republicans would be needed to eject Schwarzenegger from office.

"If you are talking about people who vote Republican, there's a fair number who probably would sign the petition and vote for it," said Howard Kaloogian, a former Republican assemblyman who led the Davis recall. "It won't be the same as Democrats (in 2003), but yeah, I think it'll be significant."

Even with the bitterness with which many Republicans view his administration, though, it would take an act of political contortion if they were to wind up standing shoulder to shoulder with a labor union, said one GOP activist.

"If I was asked to send him a check to defend him, I'd have to tell him I'm saving money for his tax increase," said Jon Fleischman, the writer of conservative blog FlashReport. "I don't have a reservoir of goodwill toward him, but I'm not sure I'd support a recall. Though, I have to say, I am getting lots of e-mails from conservatives who say they'd vote for the recall. When the governor has no political base, it makes it difficult to discern who your friends are."

For Democrats, the temptation for payback could be too delicious to pass up.

"Why is this happening? Because he's been a miserable failure," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser for the state Democratic Party, which will likely discuss the possibility of supporting a recall at its November board meeting. "Obviously, Schwarzenegger has to be worried. The Democratic Party will be following this closely."

One major obstacle to a successful recall campaign is that Democrats may not be prepared to fall in line for what would be another expensive and messy political circus. Some Democrats have already said they'd rather wait and allow the 2010 gubernatorial campaign to shape up and sort things out in their own primary, rather than being forced to quickly unite around a single candidate.

No candidate has raised any significant money to be ready for an early campaign, South said, so a Democrat would likely have to self-finance and face the Schwarzenegger fundraising machine, which appears to remain formidable.

Potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates would have to think hard about whether they'd want to take on Schwarzenegger.

"There's a lot to lose if you try to take him out," said Rob Stutzman, who served as Schwarzenegger's first communications director. "You better succeed or you could end up decommissioned for 2010. Anybody who runs and loses would probably not be in a very good position to come back eight months later."

Some observers doubt the California Correctional Peace Officers Association will take the threat all the way to the ballot. They question whether the move is strictly an internal one driven by its president, Mike Jimenez, who is facing a challenge from within.

Other interest groups may try to persuade them to drop the effort, arguing that the public would probably be in no mood for another off-year campaign, and would also likely see it as an attempt by the union to "extort" a contract. The governor's campaign team made it clear immediately they'd portray the move as an attempt to "intimidate" the governor to giving into the union's demands for higher wages.

"Everybody learns lessons from the last war, and my guess is there will be a lot more questions raised about CCPOA's motives than there were against Davis' opponents," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant.

Even if the recall gets on the ballot, Stutzman said, it could actually bolster Schwarzenegger.

"It would give him a chance to go back out and have another campaign, which he excels at," Stutzman said. "It would give him an opportunity to claim the outsider-reformer label again, fighting the big special interests."

And, it would be a rare chance for a lame-duck governor to get reaffirmed so late in his administration.

"If it came to that, he'd embrace it and in some ways savor it," Stutzman said. "It would remind people he was the guy who came to open up a can of whoop-butt and here they are coming after him."

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