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Laid-back Californians' new obsession: politics

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- A local granite supplier, Fred Smith, will gladly tell you what's bigger than the California recall.

Nothing.

The murder case of the 20th century? Nope. O. J. Simpson's trial was peanuts compared with the hullaballoo over the Oct. 7 vote on whether to unseat Governor Gray Davis, Smith said.

The rape case of the year? Not even close. Lakers star Kobe Bryant's tribulations have slipped to the bottom of newscasts.

"This is a big case," Smith said, taking his lunch break at a table in the shade in Riverside's Main Street plaza. "The recall is making history. Then you've got a lot of key players running. It's prevalent. Just like dinner on the table, it's there."

And with great gusto, Californians are eating it all up: the superstar candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the graphic accounts of the state's budget woes, the cavalcade of minor celebrities the ballot has gathered.

The recall is everywhere, all over local television, and in the streets, the dog parks, the cafes, the bars. It unites strangers in pride, bemusement, embarrassment, outrage. Suddenly, California has become New Hampshire in a presidential year. Residents have strong opinions about the candidates; and they're conscious of their power to make or break a major politician's career while the whole world watches.

California's political analysts -- busier than ever -- say they have never seen anything like it.

"It's almost like the whole state is watching a car wreck," said a Democratic consultant, Bill Carrick. "People are fascinated by it, and they're engrossed in all the little details, but at the same time, it repulses them a little bit. This is totally unlike anything that ever happens in California politically. We're always covering entertainment and car chases, and the right sunscreen to use. All of that has been pushed aside for politics, of all things."

"I've been on CNN more in the last two weeks than in the last two years," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of a California elections guide and a Republican consultant. "I'm sitting here talking to NPR in Scandinavia. . . . Everyone from Bangor to Bangkok knows Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for governor of California."

A measure of just how big the recall is in these parts: Politics is California's new small talk.

Snatches of conversations about Schwarzenegger fill the air. The talk is on a transcontinental flight ("His wife is so smart, she wouldn't marry a dummy," says a middle-aged woman). It's on a Beverly Hills street ("But he's not going to win, is he?" says a worried-looking man). It hits a news conference ("He made me care about politics again," says a buff reporter from a muscle magazine).

Only Election Day will tell whether the interest is wider than it is deep. And some Californians are worrying that the celebrity buzz is making a punch line out of their state.

"It's embarrassing!" Adrienne Higgins, a 69-year-old, said on a recent afternoon while perched on steps in the sun at Santa Monica Pier with her sister Marian Blount, who is 65. Both are lifelong Democrats.

When the topic of the recall was broached, the sisters said, "Oh my," and raised their hands to their mouths, apparently in unison.

Higgins, a West Los Angeles resident, has lived in the city since 1947. And, she said, she is used to people making her state the butt of national jokes. But this recall goes too far, even for California.

"There's a joke that if you tilt the country, all the nuts and fruitcakes fall to the West Coast," Higgins said. "That's not true -- we have brilliant people here, brilliant colleges, diverse cultures --but all this nonsense absolutely reinforces" the state's image.

Blount, equally embarrassed by the cavalcade of 135 candidates the race has attracted -- a former child star, a porn actress, a comedian noted for smashing melons with his head, and a legion of self-promoters and kooky gadflies -- admitted after a while that she had signed the recall petition, because Davis had "not done the job he was elected to do."

"It's historic, and it's about time the politicians understand people have had enough," she said, "even though we have to go to these stupid lengths. Maybe I'm dreaming, but maybe the tide will blow towards Washington, and people will realize George W. Bush is the next recall candidate."

But she said all bets are off --and her optimism is hopelessly misplaced -- if Schwarzenegger is elected.

"Let him answer some questions!" Blount said. "He's goofy! He's not qualified! He hired Rob Lowe? From the `West Wing,' he's got experience? If Schwarzenegger gets in, we'll know people want funny money and fantasy land."

According to Field Poll results released about a week ago, 54 percent of voters surveyed -- including more than a quarter of the voters who, like Blount, support the recall -- agreed that the election had made California a laughingstock.

"They don't like to be the butt of national jokes," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "But they do like the opportunity to recall the governor, and that it might attract more voters to the polls, and increase voter awareness to the seriousness of California's problems."

Of course, there are also plenty of locals who see the recall as a cause for great civic pride.

"I don't think it's a circus," said Shawn Steel, former chairman of the state Republican Party, who helped launch the recall. "What we have here is a populist, middle class rebellion that's a lot of fun. The circus is an East Coast elitist liberal media invention to demean a serious political revolt that's succeeding and, the good news is, spreading. It's everywhere, in every coffee shop. This is the way democracy ought to be, and it's driving the power elites in both parties mad."

On Oct. 7, Californians will go to the polls to decide two things: first, they will vote yes or no on recalling Davis, which requires a simple majority. Second, regardless of their vote on the first question, they will choose the person to replace the sitting governor, who will win with a plurality.

Californians are as passionate about the first question as they are about the second. In conversations with ordinary people, anger toward Davis is as strong as the fascination with Schwarzenegger.

In Riverside, none of the voters who said they felt strongly about the race cited the actor's presence as the main reason for their intense interest. Instead, they said, Davis's shortcomings have galvanized them. Voter after voter said the governor was responsible for the state's enormous deficit, at one point pegged at $38 billion, but now about $8 billion after cuts and tax and fee increases.

Long before Schwarzenegger and the circus arrived, one of 35 California residents signed the petition to support the recall, which garnered more than 1 million signatures.

"This is special because he ripped us off," said Rebecca Fleeman, 52, who seemed to be in a hurry on Riverside's Main Street on a humid afternoon -- until the topic of the recall was raised.

"They tripled" car registration fees, Fleeman said. "We've never been in this much debt. Yes, we're mad, because he doesn't know how to handle our money."

Fleeman, and many other voters in Riverside, saw no need to speak the name of Davis in conversations about the recall. Everybody knows who "he" is around here.

Though he has been in the race for little more than two weeks, and though he has yet to outline specific policy proposals beyond his commitment to holding down taxes and spending, Schwarzenegger was the main beneficiary of an animus toward Davis. Among locals, Fleeman said the actor already has her vote.

On the sticky patio at Lake Alice, a Riverside bar, it was porn star Mary "Mary Carey" Cook, rather than the "Terminator" star, who had folks shaking their heads in disgust at the recall.

"Here we are in California, and who do we have running?" asked Melinda-Ann Kolenski, 32, a cook who was sitting with three of her friends. "A porn star. California looks like a joke. Every state is laughing at us."

"Every guy is gonna vote for her," piped up Shawn Dye, 36, who had been sitting alone at a nearby table, and who had been silent until then. Kolenski and friends invited Dye to join them; the recall talk forged a brief friendship where there might otherwise have been no connection.

Dye said she was not sure about the actor either.

"I don't really follow politics, but what with everything going on, I see Arnold Schwarzenegger on TV saying, `I'm for the American people,' and to me I think it would be a mockery if people pick him. What does he know about politics?" asked Dye, a single mother and a waitress at a pancake house.

Several people at the table, who had identified themselves as liberal, responded with the Republican actor's campaign theme, which he has been sounding in $1 million worth of 60-second television spots since Wednesday: Because he doesn't need money from anyone, he will represent ordinary people, not the special interests.

All of them, including Dye, said they would vote on Oct. 7, but few analysts are sure that the enormous enthusiasm for the recall spectacle would extend to the polling booths. A high turnout would mark a significant departure from the state's voting patterns of recent years. The secretary of state's office has reported a marked increase in online registrations since the recall began, with 31,000 new voters. Statewide figures on other registrations will not be available until September.

"You have a big celebrity running for high office and that's very sexy," said Philip Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy research institute at San Jose State University and a former communications director for Davis. "California voters may be sort of interested and bemused, but it's hard to sense that they're excited about the issues facing state government. It's very superficial."

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