Union Tribune

October 8, 2003

Will recall pay off for Issa's political ambitions?


LOS ANGELES For years to come, Darrell Issa will be remembered as the guy who made it all happen the maverick congressman who bucked the GOP establishment and spent his own money to put the recall election before California voters.

Likewise, he will be remembered as the man with the checkered past and overreaching confidence, the man whose recall efforts slackened considerably after he dropped his campaign to replace Gray Davis in the governor's office.

Those twin reputations could do one of two things for Issa. They could make him a darling in GOP circles and propel him to greater things. Or they could leave him a historical footnote, one whose tendency to burn bridges hinders his future ambitions.

For a while, anyway, the Vista conservative is sure to enjoy attention, as he did last night while awaiting election returns at a hotel here with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star whose entry into the recall race convinced Issa to drop out. As it became clear Schwarzenegger would be the state's new governor, Republican activists rushed to shake Issa's hand and thank him for spending nearly $2 million of his own money to force the recall to a vote. Television cameras trailed him. Reporters pressed in to hear his thoughts.

"I wanted a change in California, and I got it," Issa said. "I wanted a good governor I could believe in, and I got it.

"This is a mandate for change, and I'm proud to be a small part of it."

Once the recall is over, the attention is sure to die down considerably. But those familiar with Issa's ambition and confidence expect he will soon turn his sights to a new high-profile project.

Perhaps he will run for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year, a spot he aimed for unsuccessfully in 1998. Supporters say Issa's recall role has boosted his name recognition across California, which would be a plus in a race against Boxer.

"Right now, he's in a tremendous position to exert leadership and to hopefully run for higher office," said James Lafferty, spokesman for Californians for Moral Government. "Most of the party, and primarily the conservative part of the party, respects him for the sacrifice that he's shown."

Issa says it's "premature" to discuss the Senate race. And Democrats would surely recycle news revealed during the recall, including Issa's two arrests long ago on weapons charges one case was dropped and charges that he faked the theft of his Mercedes, which also were dismissed.

While the party rank and file may be grateful to Issa, his stock with the party establishment is not as high today as it was when the recall qualified for the ballot.

"I'm afraid he failed to make a strong impression during the campaign on Republican leadership," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional campaigns.

Some believe Issa was more interested in finding a quick route to the governor's office than in the party's future. Those suspicions grew when Issa after dropping out of the recall race put little money or effort into the recall for almost a month. Some believe he deliberately dragged out his decision to endorse Schwarzenegger, which he did less than two weeks before the election, to turn the spotlight back on himself. Others grew furious when Issa announced last month that if two Republicans remained in the recall race, he would urge voters not to recall Davis. Issa later said he still supported the recall.

"He bailed out (as a candidate) without being more than a blip in the polls . . . then he didn't stay the fight," said Gary Jacobson, a University of California San Diego political science professor. "He'll have a constituency among conservative Republicans, but I don't think it extends beyond that."

Since endorsing Schwarzenegger, Issa has traveled with the actor and spoken at campaign events. In fact, some wonder if Issa has a future in a Schwarzenegger administration.

Others suggest that with patience, Issa can go farther in Congress than in Sacramento. Issa already has a coveted spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and his Lebanese roots have made him a liaison between the White House and Middle East leaders.

"My advice to Darrell would be to put his nose to the grindstone . . . continue to build up seniority (in the House) and continue his interest in the Middle East," said Ken Khachigian, who was an adviser in Issa's recall campaign. "After doing a good job and being a good Republican, then he might want to look at higher office."