Calif. Conundrum For Prez, Dems

GENERIC President Bush, Democratic donkey button and flag of California
With 135 candidates in the race and less than two months until a vote on recalling and replacing the governor, California's political turmoil is riling the White House and its rivals.

President Bush heads to California Thursday hoping to avoid getting ensnared by the politically perilous recall race, which could taint his chances at winning the Golden State in 2004.

Meanwhile, Democrats at the national and state level are weighing whether the best way to stay in control of the governor's office is to help incumbent Gray Davis beat back the recall, or back his lieutenant in the race to replace him.

In the looming election, voters will decide whether Davis should be ousted and then pick who should replace him from the motley field of 135 candidates.

The ballot was certified by the secretary of state Wednesday with little fanfare, as election officials feverishly verified the last of the 247 would-be governors who submitted papers to run. By the close of business, 112 were tossed out for failing to file proper paperwork.

Better-known candidates who made the cut include Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, independent commentator Arianna Huffington, Green Party standard-bearer Peter Miguel Camejo and four Republicans: businessman Bill Simon, who was defeated by Davis in November; actor Arnold Schwarzenegger; former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth; and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Northridge.

The one-of-a-kind ballot is likely the largest ever of gubernatorial candidates in one election, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"There's nothing comes close," Cain said. "I think it's fair to say it's a record, and probably a national record."

On the campaign front Wednesday, Davis reaffirmed his support for abortion rights and said he was getting advice from former President Clinton. The New York Times reported Mr. Clinton was drawing on his own survival of the impeachment process to advise Davis.

Davis joined a growing chorus of Democrats urging that the state do away with a $4 billion car tax hike scheduled to start just days before the recall election.

Democrats now would rather raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and wealthy incomes to avoid tripling car taxes. Davis called it "a good idea," while Republicans call it a new tactic to defeat the recall.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Huffington, who has railed against fat cats, paid no individual state income tax and only $771 in federal taxes in the past two years. Losses she claimed from her writing and lecturing business outweighed her income. Huffington claimed the deductions were "very conservative."

Schwarzenegger, who rode a wave of publicity in the days after he announced his candidacy, made no appearances, but his campaign announced it had tapped billionaire investor Warren Buffett as a financial adviser. Campaign disclosure forms showed the actor gave his campaign $1 million on Tuesday.

According to The Washington Post, Democrats are trying to decide how to mount a united front in California.

Supporting Davis seemed the best strategy at first, but his ebbing support has forced party leaders to reconsider.

While Bustamante has said Democrats should support Davis as well as his own candidacy as a replacement, the question for the party is where to devote limited campaign money.

"We're all grappling with these questions," California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres told The Post.

Meanwhile, The Post reports Mr. Bush's strategists and pollsters think Schwarzenegger's success or failure in the recall could affect the president's 2004 fortunes in California and other states because of the huge amount of media attention the race is generating.

All Mr. Bush has said about the actor so far is "He would be a good governor, as would others running."

Mr. Bush, who kicks off a two-day political trip to California Thursday, called the California recall election a "fascinating bit of political drama" but insists he's not backing any of the candidates to oust Davis.

Mr. Bush joked: "I'm going to campaign for George W."

The president is visiting the troops at the Miramar Naval Air Station and touring the Santa Monica Mountains nature area but also has fund-raisers in San Diego and Irvine for his own re-election effort.

Mr. Bush said he's "most interested" in seeing how the race turns out.

So are many California voters, apparently. County registrar offices across the state have reported a recent surge in voter registration applications — from Democrats to Republicans to independents — as well as registration inquiries. Exact numbers on the increases won't be available until Tuesday.

The president and the Democrats aren't the only ones facing challenges navigating in California's tumultuous political landscape.

On Thursday, the California Broadcasters Association planned to announce its criteria for selecting candidates for a pre-election debate and the proposed format that will give "real Californians" a chance to ask questions.

State and county election officials must sort out the logistics and costs of putting on the first-ever California gubernatorial recall.