Union Tribune

October 9, 2003

GOP celebrates win; political experts see changing electorate

By TOBY ECKERT and GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON The day after they recaptured the nation's most important governorship, Republicans were celebrating yesterday, already looking ahead to next year's elections with hope that what worked in California might work for the party and President Bush nationally.

But the celebrations were muted at the White House amid uncertainty as to the full meaning of the voter unrest that swept Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office and put Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place.

"Everyone in the political world has to understand that we're dealing with an electorate that's very volatile, very distraught," said Republican strategist Eddie Mahe.

Democrats put much the same spin on things.

"What California voters expressed was anger at the way things were going. When voters are angry they vote against the incumbent," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "Gray Davis was in trouble for precisely the reasons that George Bush is in trouble: People are not happy with the economy."

Still, many were surprised at the margin of Schwarzenegger's win and the resounding rejection of Davis.

Large numbers of traditionally Democratic voters union members, Hispanics, women abandoned Davis and the party's alternative, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, according to exit polls.

"There's a whole swath of voters in California for whom the Republican Party had become absolutely irrelevant. Schwarzenegger's victory makes them a potential audience for a Bush presidential message," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant in California.

Others countered that Schwarzenegger is a much different breed of Republican than Bush in many respects. His positions on abortion, gay rights and other social issues are more aligned with Democrats and with the views of most California voters, while Bush's are not.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken some positions that are clearly not in concert with the president's far-right base," Mellman said.

Schwarzenegger could also turn out to be a liability for Bush in California if he fails to deliver on promises to shore up the state's listing economy and erase its mammoth budget shortfall without a tax increase.

A number in the exit polls that jumped out at Republican strategist Greg Mueller was that 46 percent of Latinos voted for the recall.

The two Republican candidates Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, even though the top Democratic candidate to replace Davis, Bustamante, is Hispanic.

"The message from California is that Hispanics are very willing to look at Republicans. That will be one of the major aftershocks of California that will play very loudly in the 2004 presidential campaign," Mueller said.

Bush and national Republicans can also be encouraged by the overwhelming opposition to the vehicle license fee increase in California, which Schwarzenegger vowed to repeal, Mueller said.

He called that a warning to the Democratic presidential candidates who all, to some degree, are demanding a repeal of Bush's tax cuts.

"This shows that Republicans have clearly won the tax debate and that Democrats nationally have a real problem," he said.

The nine candidates for the Democratic nomination will watch developments in California closely in the months ahead to see if Bush gets more traction in a state that overwhelmingly rejected him in 2000.

If California and its mother lode of 55 electoral votes are in play, it will scramble their national strategies.

"People will definitely cut their budgets (elsewhere) because of what they'd have to spend in California," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

The White House, which for the most part was careful to publicly steer clear of the recall effort, had a low-key reaction to Schwarzenegger's victory.

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush called the action movie star to congratulate him and "looks forward to seeing him at some point in the future," possibly during a visit to California next week.

"I am looking forward to working with President Bush," Schwarzenegger told reporters yesterday in Los Angeles. "Now I have become the representative of California, I am the governor of California, and therefore I have to work with President Bush and to make sure the federal government participates" in helping solve California's troubles, from energy to water to "getting more money for the state."

There are "many, many things that we can do together," Schwarzenegger said.

Staff writerPhilip J. LaVelle contributed to this report.