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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Republicans making Davis' luck hold up

July 31, 2001

In politics, as in life, luck beats skill almost every time. One lucky lottery ticket, for instance, often puts the winner in far better financial shape than a lifetime of solid work.

And so, even as his performance in the energy crisis is questioned, even as Republicans gloat almost daily over his supposed vulnerability in next year's election, Davis drones on, steady and unspectacular — but very lucky.

Take a look around. Most Republican candidates who look to have any chance to whip Davis either self-destruct or think better of running. The most flashy of these putative rivals was actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who removed himself from the race with pious words about movie commitments that he had to live up to. This, of course, followed magazine allegations of frequent womanizing that were quickly denied by the onetime Terminator.

Meanwhile, there were no such denials from wife Maria Shriver, who has spoken publicly about the need for forgiveness in marriage.


Then there was President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, formerly the No. 2 figure in the leadership at Stanford University. In one poll of 800 voters, Rice surprisingly turned up as the top Republican prospect.

Just two weeks later, she took herself out of a race she plainly had never intended to join.

"I'm pretty happy doing what I'm doing," she said on national television. "But I love my state of California, and I'm sure it will find a very fine governor."

That left only the two Bills, Jones and Simon, and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Jones, the secretary of state and the only Republican in statewide office, was the first announced GOP candidate. But even his months-long status as the only Republican in the field wasn't enough to jump-start his fund-raising, which lags tens of millions of dollars behind the more than $30 million Davis has amassed.

Financier Simon, meanwhile, warmed up for a primary run against Jones by conducting a "California Speaks" tour in which he drew small crowds and did little more in public than warn against government involvement in electricity and energy.

"Public ownership is dangerous," he said.

He offered no ideas on how public involvement can be avoided in a time when private utilities are in financial collapse. Nor did he explain why, if public ownership is bad, cities with municipal power supplies have been better off this year than the rest of the state.

And there's Riordan, who waffles about running even as some Republicans prepare for a vicious civil war if he does enter the primary.

"I don't see how any responsible Republican could endorse him," ex-Gov. George Deukmejian opined as he got behind Jones.

That's all because of Riordan'ss frequent past donations to Democrats from Davis to Dianne Feinstein, and his Democrat-like stances on the gut issues of abortion and gun-control. Riordan also bears the burden of the abiding anti-Los Angeles sentiment in most other parts of California.

So even with Davis' own poll ratings down — and they are abysmal, with approval ratings of barely 40 percent — his luck has held, for the Republican field is so lackluster that despite Davis' own problems, no Republican prospect came within 10 points of him in surveys taken by Republican pollster Linda DiVall and others. Riordan fares the best, but still trailed by 12 in the most recent survey.

These showings came at the worst possible time for Davis, with the threat of blackouts still real and daily carping from all sides about his management of the energy scene.

It helps Davis that even as they lambaste him, not one Republican has presented anything resembling an alternative plan for handling the energy mess.

One possible reason for this: Most California Republicans know the key to solving the short-term problem is a stronger federal effort to cap the price of interstate wholesale power. A few GOP congressmen have said this publicly, with ultra-conservative Duncan Hunter of San Diego and Imperial County even carrying a price-limit bill.

But the Republican prospects all know President Bush opposes any tough price controls. So they simply keep quiet, hoping to avoid both consumer wrath and the possibility of alienating a president of their own party.

That may be the only political path they see, but it makes them political ciphers. And it represents the newest form of good luck for Davis.

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