Cruz who? California has new favourite as Arnie falters

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The Independent US

Suddenly, all conventional wisdom in the race to recall California's Governor has been turned on its head. Gray Davis, the embattled incumbent, may be able to beat off the attempt to toss him out of office after all, according to the latest poll by the Los Angeles Times.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood actor who talks of Sacramento as though the state capital were a malevolent robot to be terminated with extreme prejudice, is not the front-runner that everyone assumed him to be. The LA Times puts him 13 percentage points behind the current lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante.

Cruz who? As political analysts for both main parties digested the lessons of the weekend poll yesterday, Republican strategists were being forced to take a second look at this short, fat, balding, almost invisible career politician with a largely ceremonial post. Could he really upset their plans to send in the Terminator to take back California from the grip of the Democrats, and turn what was supposed to be a brilliant piece of political legerdemain into a giant humiliation? With six weeks to go in the unusually truncated campaign, definitive conclusions are still a long way off. Other polls have put Mr Schwarzenegger - very slightly - in the lead, and the mechanics of a race with 135 candidates make predictions of any kind a hazardous business.

But the LA Times poll has given everyone a jolt. Support for the recall, assumed to be overwhelming, was pegged at 50 per cent, with 45 per cent saying they were inclined to vote against. Mr Bustamante had the support of 35 per cent of voters, Mr Schwarzenegger 22 per cent. A rival Republican, Tom McClintock, was at 12 per cent and the other leading contenders - the left-wing independent Arianna Huffington, the conservative independent Peter Ueberroth and the Green Party candidate Peter Camejo - were all in single digits.

Mr Bustamante has held just one, poorly attended news conference since announcing his candidacy, and the bulk of his support seems to come from the inbuilt advantages he enjoys simply by having his name on the ballot.

He is the lone Democrat in the field, in a Democrat-voting state. He would be the first Latino governor in more than a century, in a state with a huge, and growing, Latino population. And he has a well-publicised history of rifts with Governor Davis, who has barely spoken to him in the five years they have held California's two top political jobs.

Mr Schwarzenegger, by contrast, has had to contend with three direct rivals on the right of the political spectrum. One of those rivals, the Republican businessman Bill Simon, dropped out of the race over the weekend and pressure was mounting on the other two, Mr McClintock and Mr Ueberroth, to follow suit.

The near-limitless media exposure has been as much of a bane as a blessing for Mr Schwarzenegger, highlighting holes and contradictions in his political beliefs and raising the question of what platform, if any, he is running on.

Mr Bustamante has none of Mr Schwarzenegger's charisma, swagger, or fashion consciousness. Indeed, he has had a distinctly plodding career, rising from modest beginnings in California's Central Valley to the state legislature, the job of Assembly speaker and thence the lieutenant governor's office. As Harold Meyerson, one of California's most acute political commentators, wrote recently, he is "one of the dimmer stars in California's political firmament, but he comes by his obscurity honestly".

In other circumstances, that might be considered a handicap. But in this race, the contrast with the Hollywood flash of the Terminator might just work to his advantage.