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End of Days

With 10 days to go, California’s recall race is finally back on track after more than a week of court-induced uncertainty. The imperatives for the candidates are coming into sharp relief.

Gray Davis must hope that Democrats forget how he has disappointed them and that independents consider him superior to the alternatives. With the pro-recall committees now moribund, Arnold Schwarzenegger must drive the recall home and demonstrate that he can be a credible governor while dominating the Republican vote and picking up independents and disaffected Democrats. Cruz Bustamante must overcome the odor of his casino-dominated fund-raising machinations — now twice rejected in the legal process — and show that he has been paying attention while occupying high offices. Tom McClintock must hope for the miraculous collapse of Schwarzenegger and his own escape from the opprobrium of getting major help from Indian casino tribes. And Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo must figure out how to have enough influence to make their trailing candidacies worth it.

Of course, this election goes forward with an asterisk. The unanimously overturned federal appellate court panel succeeded for a week in halting a flood of absentee ballots and in short-circuiting voter-registration efforts that were running heavily in favor of independents and Republicans. Nevertheless, the recall continues to lead by a sizable margin, and the governorship remains close to the grasp of rookie candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here are the challenges facing the top contenders:

Gray Davis

How hard can the governor get people to swallow? Environmental groups, known to complain bitterly about Davis, are talking about him as if he were his own former boss Jerry Brown, a morphing he has spent most of his career assiduously avoiding. Sure, the governor signed the landmark global-warming bill, which was a Weekly crusade last year and one of his most frequently touted achievements. But after winning last year’s primary, the governor had a different tune. “Bush may be right,” Davis said of the president’s view that global warming needed more study. It might be time to act “in five or 10 years.” Davis warmed to the measure to cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, but not tremendously. He later signaled indirectly that he favored the bill without endorsing it and became an enthusiast only with its signing.

Davis was more active in passing the requirement for 20 percent renewable energy by 2017 but, after taking months to endorse the bill, made few calls to legislators on its behalf. Not unhelpful, but not a profile in courage.

Other groups, such as Latino legislators and Indian casino tribes, are getting major turnarounds from the governor, with Davis embracing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants without the security provisions that he pushed for and which were in the bill he vetoed last year, and soliciting casino tribe candidates for the commission that regulates Indian casinos. Davis must hope to stir up enough fear, uncertainty and doubt about the recall, which he is doing with a well-funded advertising campaign, and overshadow his pandering moves.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

If the recall is to succeed, Schwarzenegger will have to make it happen. And if the ex–Mr. Universe is to become Mr. California this time around, he will have to carry off the balancing act of being a Pete Wilson and a John McCain, and persuade voters that his far less experienced real self is ready to be governor.

The Republican Party, in another sign of its toothless status in this state, has not mounted much of a campaign for the recall. So much for the big bad Republicans.

Schwarzenegger’s real trick is in being both a Wilson, who can consolidate most Republicans, and a McCain, who can expand beyond to independents and some Democrats. Tricky for anyone to do, even an experienced politician, especially with a high-profile right-winger, McClintock, continuing to stay in the race even though Schwarzenegger has won the de facto Republican primary, with twice as much support among Republican voters.

After setting records for vagueness, Schwarzenegger has become wonkish of late, especially compared to the other top contenders, putting out strong and detailed programs on political reform and environmental and energy policy. On the environment, Schwarzenegger is actually to the left of Davis, with aggressive plans promoting renewable energy, curtailing air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, and protecting coasts and forests, contradicting Bush policy in many cases. On political reform, he would open all government operations to public scrutiny, ban fund-raising through much of the legislative session, and require that all contributions be reported within 24 hours on the Internet. His budget plan, however, remains very vague. And that, of course, is the biggest Capitol issue of the moment.

But the biggest political issue remains Schwarzenegger himself. Is he being held back by a cautious and cumbersome, indeed Brobdingnagian, campaign? Is this guy, who has mused for years about being governor but was not on track to being fully prepared until 2006, credible enough to be governor next month? Or has all the energy he spent on Terminator 3, which is just now becoming one of the top 50 films of all time in worldwide box office, been too much of a distraction from being prepared enough for this recall race?

Cruz Bustamante

The lite guv still has the lightest public schedule of the candidates, a schedule that in fact is not that easy to find out about. His attempts to launder vast contributions from Indian casino tribes into his gubernatorial campaign in violation of Proposition 34 campaign limits, revealed by the Weekly and other papers, have repeatedly been rebuffed by regulators, and now the courts, yet continue still. His negatives have skyrocketed. His credibility with that part of the press that is not an adjunct of the Democratic Party has plummeted in the wake of his inability to understand the budget crisis and the power crisis. He is running well below the 40 percent Democratic base vote that his candidacy is structured to capture as the only name Democrat in the race.

Bustamante tried to bail out of the big Wednesday-night debate in Sacramento, correctly pointing out that the pool of questions was known in advance, seemingly giving an advantage to the actor Schwarzenegger. But unlike the other debates, generally lifeless affairs in which candidates gave quick answers to disconnected questions from journalists, the Sacramento debate had much give-and-take in the format, not Bustamante’s strong suit.

Bustamante’s candidacy will tell us if the latest big-money special interest, the Indian casino tribes, can buy themselves a governorship through their blatant spending of millions to help Bustamante and stop Schwarzenegger, who supports Indian gaming but opposes its massive expansion. And if the voters understand that this movie is not Dances With Wolves but Casino.

With his fund-raising in low gear in late August, with just over $300,000 received, Bustamante and his political honcho Richie Ross turned to a seeming loophole in the Proposition 34 campaign-reform law and began laundering millions in contributions from Indian casino tribes into the campaign. Despite court rulings against him, Bustamante refuses to return the money. Ross says the campaign can’t give any of the money back, as the court ordered, because it has all been spent on ads opposing Proposition 54. But the TV ads began airing just six days before the court ruling, and the campaign acknowledges that money is sitting in TV-station accounts waiting to pay for ads that could be canceled. Is a contempt-of-court citation the next embarrassment in the lite guv’s future?

Tom McClintock

This very bright right-wing state senator from Thousand Oaks must know he can’t win no matter how much Indian casino interests spend on “independent” TV ads on his behalf. The senator, at the zenith of his career, must find a way to declare victory for advancing the ideas he holds dear, some of which have proved to be prescient on fiscal matters, and find a role to play with Schwarzenegger, the only person who can give him a meaningful mission. Otherwise, he becomes a bitter-ender whose vote may in the end not be big enough to matter anyway, thus squandering his advantage.

Peter Camejo and Arianna Huffington

Peter Camejo has seemed downright chummy with Bustamante in debates, but it is doubtful his Green Party would support the controversial Democrat. Huffington has emerged as the campaign’s best debater, always able to offer a tart critique of what is wrong with all the leading candidates. In both a statement from her campaign and a conversation with me, the feisty independent progressive candidate insists she is in this race until the end.

And why not? While she is a Schwarzenegger critic, it is clear from what she is saying that she doesn’t think that taking votes away from Bustamante is spoiling anything.