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This California Wildfire Is Sure to Singe the White House

California's truth-is-stranger-than-Hollywood political ruckus has had more plot twists than a cheesy soap opera, and now yesterday's Republican recall dream has turned into today's nightmare for the Bush Administration.

But tomorrow, as they say, is another day. The White House is still hoping for a victory that replaces embattled Democratic Governor Gray Davis with a Republican leader able to patch up the world's sixth-largest economy and help speed a national recovery. In an increasingly Democratic state, however, a win by movie tough guy Arnold Schwarzenegger or some other GOP aspirant may not be in the script.

While President Bush has studiously avoided taking a position on the recall, Entertainment Tonight's favorite campaign has galvanized Democratic loyalists across the country. They see it as the latest GOP effort to steal offices Republicans can't win in regular elections. Combined with the redistricting battle in Texas, the Oct. 7 recall has reignited fury pent up since the Florida recount. John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, calls the angry Dems "blue hots," for the "blue" states carried by Al Gore in 2000.

Schwarzenegger's media-magnet candidacy puts the President on the spot because of close ties between the political neophyte and the Bush family. Arnold chaired the first President Bush's Commission on Physical Fitness, backed George W. in 2000, and conferred with strategist Karl Rove at the White House as recently as April.

Still, Bush must tread carefully. Bushies infuriated California conservatives by siding with moderate Richard Riordan in the ill-fated 2002 gubernatorial primary against hard-right favorite Bill Simon Jr. And though Schwarzenegger has made inroads with the Right because of his perceived electability and anti-tax rhetoric, he is a social liberal. Some 35% of conservatives backed him in an Aug. 16-21 Los Angeles Times Poll, but many remain loyal to state Senator Tom McClintock.

The irony of Bush's California conundrum is that the White House would have preferred no recall at all. Then the President could have run in a state where the Democratic governor was the most unpopular in history. Now he faces risks whichever way the recall goes. If Davis stages a comeback, it will be seen as a rejection of Republican excesses. But if he is removed, he might be replaced by the state's first-ever Latino governor, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who leads Arnold 35% to 22% in the Times Poll.

Some Republicans think the only way to rescue the recall is to unite behind Schwarzenegger. Under pressure, Simon has dropped out. And rumors are rife that Rove soon will tighten the screws on McClintock and independent businessman Peter Ueberroth. Bush's campaign flatly denies any involvement, and California Republican Chairman George "Duf" Sundheim thinks pressure tactics are risky. "This is an issue about California to be decided by Californians for California," he says.

Whatever the final outcome, Sundheim sees some positive signs for the Golden State GOP. The party has registered 85,000 new loyalists this year -- 11% of them ex-Democrats. Ousting Davis would be a sign of GOP muscle. And a pragmatic, reformist party could be poised for gains in 2004 legislative elections. "The soil is being prepared in a way that can be very favorable," Sundheim says.

Perhaps. But the soil in California has been poisoned with partisanship. Bush now trails a generic Democrat 47% to 42% in a hypothetical 2004 match-up, according to an Aug. 10-13 Field Poll. So whether the President's men get involved or not, Bush is unlikely to emerge unsinged by the raging recall. Chairman Michael K. Powell is trying to put out the firestorm he ignited in June when the Federal Communications Commission relaxed rules restricting the size of media companies. As the Senate prepares to vote in September to gut a new rule enabling TV networks to buy more stations, Powell is trying to quell fears of media consolidation by studying ways to promote local programming. And he is finding allies on the Right. Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax, anti-regulation group led by Grover G. Norquist, is launching an Internet ad campaign and a Web site backing FCC media reforms.

Norquist and others argue that the backlash against Powell will encourage re-regulation -- including reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine, which could muzzle conservative talk radio. But there's a split on the Right. Other conservative groups -- including the National Rife Assn. and the Family Research Council -- fear that the consolidation push would lead to liberal media censorship of their views. The Securities & Exchange Commission can't lock 'em up, but it can give errant execs the boot. So far in fiscal 2003, it has barred a record 144 execs from ever again serving as officers or directors of public companies. That's more bars in 11 months than the 126 for all of 2002 -- and a far cry from the 38 in 2000. And under a new policy, those who settle charges without admitting or denying guilt will no longer be allowed to contest SEC allegations in related disciplinary actions.

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