I'm as star-struck as the next guy, but ...

I'm as star-struck as the next guy, but ...

Senior editorial writer and columnist, The Register

Let's cut to the chase.

Gov. Gray Davis is history. There is no compelling reason to keep him as governor, and no plausible Democratic strategy to forestall the inevitable. No one deserves this fate more than Davis who - time for a lesson here - in refusing to take a stand on anything to avoid political fallout, has earned the most political fallout one could receive.

Even California conservatives, an understandably pessimistic group, aren't worried about whether Davis will be recalled. That's considered a done deal. The question is who will replace him. Most people expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to win handily, unless he makes some misstep as he morphs from actor to politician.

The big question I'm asked, as somewhat of a purist when it comes to limiting government, is who I will vote for. We don't endorse, but here's my thinking on how to evaluate the candidates.

Let's start with a process of elimination.

Despite the 135 candidates, the race will quickly come down to a choice between no more than five candidates: actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock, businessman Bill Simon and perhaps even former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

Bustamante is a liberal, beholden to labor unions, Latino activists, Indian tribes and trial lawyers. Until he threw his name into the recall mix, Bustamante hadn't shown any distinguishing leadership qualities. A Bustamante administration would be, in effect, the continuation of the Davis administration, although the current lieutenant governor might push even harder to the left.

No way to Cruz.

Simon is a policy wonk, and a likeable guy on a personal level. He holds mainstream conservative views on social issues, although he is by no means divisive in the way he discusses them. He has thought carefully about many policy issues, including infrastructure, budget issues, education, local control and so forth. His views lean in the libertarian/conservative direction, which makes me sympathetic toward him.

But his campaigns - including the primary against Dick Riordan and the general election against Gray Davis - would make interesting case studies in how not to practice the art of politics. He refused to spend a lot of his own money in the primary until late in the game. He basically won because of two bizarre occurrences: Gov. Davis spent money bashing Simon's opponent, Riordan, whom the governor viewed as a more formidable adversary. And Riordan forgot he was running in a GOP primary, and decided to unleash venom against the party's conservatives. Conservatives dominate the primary and got their revenge in a landslide.

In the general election, we waited and waited and Simon did nothing. He didn't go negative until late in the game - a foolish move, given Davis' skill at puke politics. Then there were the untrue allegations that Davis illegally took a campaign check in the state Capitol. Oops, that wasn't the state Capitol after all, but a private office.

What a disaster. Simon lost by five points, but he should have won. Anyone else would have won. Simon should not be in this race. He had his chance. He blew it, big time. I would not vote for him, period.

Ueberroth's big shtick is that centrist, let's-get-along, let's restore civility garbage that was big in the early 1990s. But the problem in Sacramento isn't that people haven't gotten along, but that they have gotten along too well. The Democrats, who control every statewide office and hold a lock on the Legislature, have been spending money, regulating, acting without any serious checks and balances. On a personal level, Davis and legislators hated each other, but there has been no battle of ideas in Sacramento. We need a governor who will confront the Legislature and lead, not someone who wants to be legislators' friend.

No way on Ueberroth.

What's left is a choice between my heart and my head. My heart says Schwarzenegger. Here's a guy who can win. Here's a guy who can shake things up and excite a new breed of Republicans and cut across party lines. He's smart, savvy, has a quintessentially American story to tell. And he is the best chance to rid the state of Davis. Based on an editorial board meeting with him, I have no doubts he would be up to the leadership role.

But then my head butts in. Schwarzenegger is a relatively unknown commodity when it comes to politics, although we know he supported Prop. 187, wants to stop the state's drain of businesses to other states, and is pretty liberal on the social stuff, including the conservative hot-buttons of abortion and gay rights. Until he details a more specific plan for treating an unruly government the way his Terminator 3 character treated the Terminatrix, it's hard to pull the lever for him.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, who despite his unabashed conservatism was the only Republican who came close to winning a statewide election in his November race for controller, is the real thing: A hard-nosed fiscal conservative who understands budgets and has the toughness to shame the Legislature into fixing the mess it has made.

If the Legislature balks, McClintock will propose a variety of initiatives to circumvent it. He would use the bully pulpit to go directly to voters and make his case for the right solutions. No gimmicks, just the hard truth.

But McClintock probably doesn't have the money to run the kind of race needed to top Schwarzenegger and Bustamante, and if he pulls too many Republican votes Bustamante will win. It's a tough choice, and probably too early to decide. But this is a refreshing discussion to have, given that not too long ago it looked like Californians were stuck with 3 1/2 more years of Gray Davis as governor.