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Poll Position

The first poll numbers on the recall are out and--surprise!--Bustamante's in front. What does it mean for Republicans? And Democrats?

12:00 AM, Aug 18, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and the E Street Band--"The Greatest Little House Band in All the Land"--were in San Francisco this weekend, playing to a sold-out Pacific Bell Park. Too bad the Garden State's favorite son didn't pull a Hillary and adopt another state as his pet cause. He would have made a great 136th recall candidate.

The Boss is no stranger to the political scene. In 2002, a group called Independence for New Jersey tried to recruit him to run in a U.S. Senate race. Their strategy: run the musician as a true-blue-collar outsider--a slimmer, more lyrical Jesse Ventura. (And don't forget that the tug-of-war back in 1984, when both parties wanted to lay claim to "Born in the USA.")

What if Springsteen had jumped into the recall fray? Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's movies and politics, The Boss's body of work would be a study in evolution, running hot and cold, upbeat and downcast. And, like Arnold, conservatives would have decidedly mixed feelings. Springsteen's song "Into the Fire" celebrates the rescue crews that perished on September 11. His "41 Shots" rips into the NYPD for the Amadou Diallo shooting.

Would Springsteen have been a serious contender? We'll never know. But The Boss would have been the only candidate able to fill a 40,000-seat stadium. That is, unless Arianna Huffington holds a gathering of her past, present, and future tax counselors.

Meanwhile, there's a surprise front-runner in California's October 7 election. It's Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who holds a lead over Schwarzenegger in the latest California Field Poll, 25 percent to 22 percent. Here's the link in case you want to dive in the mosh pit that is California politics.

The Field survey of likely voters breaks down as follows:

Bustamante 25%

Schwarzenegger 22%

Tom McClintock 9%

Bill Simon 8%

Peter Ueberroth 5%

Arianna Huffington 4%

Peter Camejo 2%

Larry Flynt 1%

Other Candidates 5%

None of the Candidates 5%

Undecided 14%

So, how to make sense these numbers?

Understand that living by poll numbers 50 days before the recall vote is like going to Las Vegas tomorrow and placing a bet on the Super Bowl. A lot will change between now and game day. Just ask anyone who laid money on the Atlanta Falcons, before Michael Vick broke his leg. Spinmeisters like to tell reporters that polls are snapshots and in this case it's true. Look for trends, and movement. Can Bustamante, the only serious Democrat in the race, expand his base? Will McClintock or Simon gain anti-tax Republican support, at Arnold's expense, after the Terminator's economic advisor, billionaire Warren Buffett, caused a flap last week by suggesting Californians should have higher property taxes?

The hidden story in this first poll isn't what it says about the candidates, but what it means to Democrats and Republicans in general. The recall's winner won't be the candidate with the most toys. It will be the party that quits toying around makes the hard decisions necessary to cobble together a winning plurality.

For Republicans, the numbers send a clear signal. To paraphrase Lincoln, an elephant divided cannot stand. Schwarzenegger pulls down 22 percent of the field, the same as the other three Republicans (McClintock, Simon, Ueberroth) combined. That split vote enables Bustamante to "win" the second half of the ballot, 25 percent to 44 percent.

Common sense would dictate that Republicans should unite behind Arnold, if he stays statistically even with Bustamante. And that's the key here: Arnold can't afford a falter. He can only force a unity discussion as long as it's clear he's the only Republican with a shot at winning.

But how does the Republican realpolitik happen? Ueberroth, whose candidacy is based on the premise of a Terminator collapse, might fall in line. And that's important, as his core support is made up of Southern California's pro-business moderates; they'll go with Arnold. Maybe Simon falls in place too, if he concludes that a Terminator endorsement makes him a more viable candidate for future races. Arnold gets some of Simon's voters, but not all. And McClintock? That's a bigger unknown. Not to suggest that the Ventura County state senator's followers are fanatical, but long-lost Japanese soldiers have emerged from caves clutching portraits of the emperor and copies of the McClintock plan to abolish California's car tax. They'll need a lot of convincing to support Arnold.