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California Recall Battle Could Have Broader Implications for US Politics - 2003-08-14

Earthquakes are nothing new in California. But few could have predicted the political earthquake that is now shaking up the Golden State, as voters decide whether to recall Governor Gray Davis and replace him with any one of 135 candidates, including the current front-runner, movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall battle could have national implications for both major political parties.

Many Republicans see replacing Democrat Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as potentially a major boost to President Bush's re-election hopes in California next year.

David Gergen, an experienced political and communications strategist who has advised recent presidents from both parties, spoke on NBC's Today program.

"If the State House, Sacramento [governorship], were in the hands of Republicans and Schwarzenegger were doing well, then it could help President Bush win California, and if he wins California, it is all over, of course, or at least, it would appear to be over, in 2004," he said.

That is because California has been such a Democratic stronghold in recent years. The state strongly supported Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in the two previous presidential elections.

In fact, it is hard to draw up a scenario where a Democratic candidate could win the presidency, without carrying California.

But even if Arnold Schwarzenegger wins the recall election, not everyone is convinced that it would be good news for the president or the Republican Party.

"He [Schwarzenegger] will be pushed and torn on a variety of issues, and at the end of the day, I am not sure if the Republican Party or George W. Bush will look any better than it does now in California," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst based in Washington who appeared on this week's Encounter program on VOA. "So I don't assume that a Schwarzenegger victory will have dramatic impact on Bush's prospects in 2004 - that is - on improving them."

But the stakes are perhaps even higher for the Democrats. After all, if Gray Davis is recalled and replaced with a Republican, the Democrats will no longer control the governor's office in the country's largest state, a state they desperately need to carry in next year's presidential election.

"California is a beachhead for the Democratic Party," said Bill Sandalow, the Washington Bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. "It is the most Democratic state in the nation. If they lose it (governor's race) to a Republican, they have to regroup."

The Democrats have another problem. All the media attention focused on 'Ahnold' and the California recall is bound to distract voters from the national battle within the Democratic Party to choose a nominee to challenge President Bush next year.

"There are nine Democrats running right now for president of the United States for the Democratic nomination," said analyst Stuart Mr. Rothenberg. "It is going to be impossible for them to compete (for attention) with this California circus."

Beyond the immediate impact on the two major political parties, the California vote could spark recall efforts elsewhere.

Bill Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle says the political battle in California could be a boon to candidates around the country looking to position themselves as political outsiders.

"If the anger that Californians have at their lifelong politicians can seep eastward, then I don't know if we are going to see recall elections across the country; but we certainly may see other American politicians who act in the mold of Schwarzenegger, and try to present themselves as outsiders," he said. "And that could be the new gift from California to the rest of the country."

Gray Davis is hoping to avoid becoming only the second governor in American history to be recalled by voters. North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was recalled in 1921, but won election to the U.S. Senate a year later.

Thirty-two recall attempts targeting governors have been launched in California history, but the current effort is the only one to reach the ballot.

While most states allow governors to be impeached and removed from office, California is one of only 18 states that permits voter recall of state officials.