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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2003 / 20 Elul, 5763

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Almost Total Recall | The Democratic presidential candidates can't catch a break. They have been campaigning approximately forever, they have met in debates and forums more than 20 times, and most people still can't name a single one of them.

Out in California, on the other hand, where citizens eventually will vote on whether to recall their governor, name recognition is no problem.

Everybody knows that Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for governor, and because of his bodybuilding and acting career, he enjoys a huge advantage over the other 134 candidates on the ballot.

I recently flew to Fresno, Calif., to hear Schwarzenegger speak to schoolchildren, and as I walked through the airport, I noticed a Terminator 2 pinball machine -- yes, they still play pinball in Fresno -- that featured a large color picture of Schwarzenegger.

There was no pinball machine featuring Schwarzenegger's leading opponents: Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante or Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock. True, Schwarzenegger was depicted on the game as being half-human and half-machine, but publicity, as they say, is publicity.

The chaotic California race was thrown even deeper into pandemonium on Monday, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the vote should not take place on Oct. 7, as scheduled, because major population centers in California still use punch-card ballots, the kind they used in Florida that led to all those hanging chads.

The ruling was by a three-member panel, and the panel stayed its own order for seven days to allow an appeal to the full 11-member Ninth Circuit Court or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, the same court that decided the Florida controversy.

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The election could be delayed until the regular March 3, 2004, California presidential primary, when new voting machines will be in place.

This would almost certainly help California's governor, Gray Davis, a Democrat, since the Democratic presidential race might be a lot hotter then and presumably will draw Democrats to the polls, while President Bush is currently running unopposed, and so Republicans might not come out.

It also removes one of Schwarzenegger's advantages: The recall was supposed to be a quick race that was not going to get bogged down in issues or a lot of debates. Schwarzenegger has accepted only one debate invitation -- one in which the candidates will get the questions in advance.

But if the recall election is delayed until March, can Schwarzenegger really refuse to meet his opponents face-to-face time and time again? Can he really avoid making and defending detailed policy statements on the major issues?

His campaign already has run into unexpected problems. Polls show him trailing the far less colorful, but equally determined, Bustamante. Then, McClintock, who is liked by conservatives, refused to drop out in favor of Schwarzenegger. The latter is especially important. Schwarzenegger wanted McClintock out before 2 million absentee ballots were placed in the mail, but that happened last week and McClintock is not only still in, but insisting he will never bow to the Terminator.

The Schwarzenegger camp is being brave about it, but they fear the arithmetic: If there is one prominent Democrat, Bustamante, running against two prominent Republicans, Schwarzenegger and McClintock, the Republican vote could be split and the Democrat could win.

"We can win with the current field, but there is no question the math gets simpler if the field continues to consolidate around Arnold," Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's spokesman, says. "We're confident that at the end of the day, Sen. McClintock will do the right thing and not imperil a Republican victory."

But a bigger peril to a Republican victory may be the woman's vote in a state where women make up 52 percent of likely voters. According to a recent Field Poll, Schwarzenegger leads Bustamante narrowly among men, but trails him by a whopping 13 points among women. Why? One reason may be the violence in some Schwarzenegger movies, but another may be some of Schwarzenegger's recent comments, such as an interview in Entertainment Weekly dated July 11, in which he talks about his movie "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and says, "How many times do you get away with this -- to take a woman, grab her upside down and bury her face in a toilet bowl?"

One time too many from a political standpoint.

The California election is confusing because it is really two elections. Question One asks voters whether they want to recall Davis as governor. A simple majority will determine his fate. Question Two asks voters to select among 135 names for his replacement. All that is needed to win here is a plurality. In other words, Davis could get 49.99 percent of the vote on Question One and lose his job to a person who gets 30 percent of the vote on Question Two.

Unfair? Especially since Davis was re-elected only last November and no charges of any kind have been brought, let alone proved, against him? His campaign sure thinks so.

"Recalls were designed for malfeasance or criminality, not for bad economies and budgets shortfalls," says Davis spokesman Peter Ragone.

On Monday, Davis was asked about the appeals court decision that could delay the election. "This recall has been like a roller coaster," he said. "It has more surprises than you can possibly imagine."

And I get a funny feeling that, California being California, more could be on the way.

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