California voters' resounding rejection of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and embrace of first-time candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger left no doubt about discontent over the state's budget problems. The moderate Republican's lightning ascent to the governor's office in a heavily Democratic state sends provocative political messages, some bearing on the 2004 presidential election.
Voters will dump someone they blame for economic woes - even for a political novice, if they see potential for strong leadership.
The 60 percent turnout of registered voters in a non-presidential year bypassed party labels and gave the film star 50 percent of the vote, with the next nearest candidate, Democratic Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, trailing by 17 points. Davis was the dream candidate to run against, an unpopular governor. The 77-day recall contest offered Schwarzenegger a shortcut to office and a bargain, even when spending $10 million of his own money. Coached by former Gov. Pete Wilson, the actor ran a populist campaign against political lifer and loner Davis. Schwarzenegger hit the populist note again in his victory speech signaling California's liberal Democratic legislators. "For the people to win," he said, "politics as usual must lose."
Some California problems such as the dot.com crash, unemployment and the electricity crisis were not of Davis' making, and he was re-elected only 11 months ago, but that was against a weak Republican campaigner, Bill Simon Jr. Davis presided over a $38 billion deficit. He compounded mistakes, increasing the hated car tax, even signing a bill to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The new governor's "honeymoon" is likely to be short, but he's smart enough to recruit advisers such as billionaire Warren Buffet. The big man made big promises. Voters want to see results.
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