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Wild Cards

The recall race is built for volatility. The next governor of California may be decided by a confluence of small factors.

7:30 AM, Aug 28, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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CIRCLE TWO DATES on your recall calendar: September 3 and September 17. The first is a candidates' forum in Walnut Creek; the second, a candidates' debate in Sacramento. For California voters, it's their best chance at seeing the recall field up-close and personally.

That is, if Arnold Schwarzenegger decides to participate. At last report, The Terminator wants to limit debates to himself and the Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Schwarzenegger may be a no-show on September 3 (personally, I doubt it; a last-minute switch would be keeping in Arnold's tradition of keeping the press off-guard). Meanwhile, Team Arnold will try its best to muscle the California Broadcasters Association, sponsors of the September 17 debate, into keeping their stage as sparse as possible (translation: no Arianna Huffington).

The two broadcast appearances should go a long way in helping undecided Californians choose their next governor (assuming Gray Davis is recalled).

SOMETHING STRANGE is afoot in California--besides the 133 candidates and the two month campaign. It's the volatility of the entire affair. Undecideds account for anywhere from one-in-seven to one-in-three votes, depending on the poll one. Pollsters also report that between 60 percent to 89 percent of Californians say they plan to vote on October 7. That's a staggering number, considering that only half of all registered voters took part in last November's gubernatorial race.

It seems as though voters are in the mood to take out their frustration with the status quo. So the race will go to the party that better channels voters' energy.

Here are some basic questions to ask:

Right Equals Might? Grassroots conservatives are responsible for making the recall a reality. The movement started on talk radio and in malls and shopping centers across California, where 1.6 million signatures were gathered. Their anger was directed specifically at Gray Davis. How angry will these Californians be on October 7; will they turn out to vote on large numbers, to finish what they started?

A Front and Center? Arnold Schwarzenegger's presence on the ballot is supposed to be a lifeline to moderate Republicans. But will they turn out in sufficient numbers to offset Arnold's soft support among conservatives? Moderate Republicans have been AWOL in recent California elections (in the 2002 GOP primary, conservative Bill Simon outperformed moderate Dick Riordan in Marin County). Can Arnold bring them home?

Cruzing for a Bruising? The theory is that Cruz Bustamante will turbo-charge the Democrats' Latino base. But will that vote actually materialize on October 7 and put him over the top? For all the talk of the Latino vote as the new 800-lb. gorilla in California politics, that bloc accounted for only 10 percent of the electorate last November. Bustamante will have to find a way to jazz that vote--and charisma is not his forte.

And now, a few of the wild cards in the recall deck:

Will Terminator fans dabble in democracy? In California, the registration rate for voters under-25 is 42 percent, the lowest percentage of any age group. Only 28 percent of the under-25 crowd is Republican (compared to nearly 36 percent of all registered voters); 27 percent aren't aligned with a party. Arnold's campaign is based on crossover appeal; this group puts that charm to the test. Will the same young voters who'll stand in long lines for double-lattes stand in long lines at the polls?

Or does Bustamante beat Arnold to the punch? California's youth vote is as Democrat as the rest of the electorate (45 percent), but it's more Latino (34.6 percent, compared to 31.7 percent overall). Do young Latinos react with pride or indifference when they see Bustamante's name on the ballot?

Do Republicans or Democrats come out to play? State parties exist to register voters and get out the vote. Which party will do a better job on voter registration between now and the September 22 deadline to sign up for the October 7 vote? Republicans are a step ahead of Democrats here: State party officials claim their voter registration drive hit a record high in recent weeks.

Where do absentees fit in? Recall's absentee voting begins on September 8. Let's assume that it's a conservative, pro-Republican, anti-Davis vote. Does that shortchange Schwarzenegger as long as Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican, stays in the race? Does Arnold have a plan to turn out his own absentee vote?

What's the brainpower of the typical Democratic voter? Can California Democrats make sense of the recall ballot on Election Day, or does their confusion cost Bustamante votes? If Democrats in Florida couldn't make heads or tails of a butterfly ballot, can the party faithful on the Left Coast grasp the left-brain/right-brain nuance of voting "no" on recall, then "yes" for Bustamante?