Even in California politics, there is only so much money to go around.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – If you’re a Democratic presidential candidate, there are few better places in America to come calling for money than the tony neighborhoods and immaculate boulevards of Beverly Hills.

For Howard Dean, the political star of the summer, the fashionable 90210 ZIP code provided a bigger treasure trove than almost anywhere else and played an essential role in turning the unlikely candidacy of a former Vermont governor into that of a leading presidential hopeful. His rivals have traveled here, too, seeking money and endorsements from well-heeled donors and Democratic-loving celebrities.

But the presidential candidates’ California money drive has been unexpectedly complicated by the spectacle of the gubernatorial recall. The unfolding drama of a wounded governor – challenged not only by Arnold Schwarzenegger but also by a string of lesser-known characters and even a busty billboard queen – could alter the course of the Democratic primary and leave a trail of unknown consequences for the 2004 presidential campaign.

At this early stage of a presidential race, as the field of nine Democrats battles through a summer of obscurity, the state of California should have been a safe harbor for candidates to harvest contributions and forge relationships with the Democratic Party’s elite in the nation’s most populous state. August and September were intended to be an important time to build war chests for an expensive winter.

With the Oct. 7 recall election absorbing the political oxygen in California, presidential politics has suddenly become a far less relevant sport here.

And the Democrats, who desperately need to raise money to keep their candidacies afloat, were wondering late last week if the state could become a less lucrative or too politically volatile place to spend considerable time the next two months.

“The recall will be tapping into the same kinds of donors that would normally be giving money to the presidential candidates,” said Mark DiCamillo, a longtime observer of California politics and director of the Field Poll. “If you assume it’s a zero sum game, that people only give a certain amount of political money, it will take some money away from presidential candidates.”

During the first six months of the year, the nine Democratic presidential candidates collected nearly $9 million from California contributors. In the same period, President Bush raised $4.2 million from state donors. No one suggests that even a bizarre recall could dry up the California money well, but the special election and all its trappings presents a diversion that none of the 10 candidates, including the president, had anticipated.

“My first instinct is to stay as far away as possible,” said a senior strategist to a Democratic campaign, who conceded the candidate would have no choice but to visit the state at some point. “You can’t have a significant financial plan in a presidential race that doesn’t involve California.”

The Republican National Committee and the White House were never thrilled by the notion of recalling Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat under attack because of an enormous budget deficit, the fallout of an energy crisis and widespread unpopularity. In fact, some Republican strategists thought Bush would have a better chance of winning California’s 55 electoral votes in 2004 if Davis were still in office and could be used as a symbolic punching bag.

But as Schwarzenegger’s entry into the race began to sink in last week, some GOP officials here now say that Bush could benefit from the turmoil of the recall. California Republicans were already trying to register more voters here, as part of a nationwide effort to bring 3 million new voters into the party, so party organizers believe having a pop-culture idol on the ticket would only be a better draw.

The recall election, which prompted more than 500 people to request candidacy papers last week, has become such a spectacle that Bush acknowledged he was riveted by the daily developments. He declined to step far into the fray, but when asked about Schwarzenegger, Bush said, “I think he’d be a good governor.”

“It’s fascinating to see who’s in and who’s out,” the president said Friday at his Texas ranch. “You know, I’m a follower of American politics. I find what’s going on in the state of California very interesting, and I’m confident the citizens of California will sort all this out for the good of the citizenry.”

Others saw a downside to the unorthodox transformation of the electoral system. Here in Southern California, much of the citizenry seemed restless, angry and embarrassed by the slap-shot civics experiment that the Davis recall has become. At least Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt paid his own $3,500 filing fee. The 99 Cents Only store was offering to foot the bill for any 99-year-old Californian willing to declare their intention for the governor’s seat.

“It’s an election on steroids,” said Nelson Polsby, a professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley. “Do you really call it democracy when 65 signatures and $3,500 can put yourself on the ballot?”

Despite the slapstick aspect of the recall election, aides to several presidential campaigns and both national parties were seriously monitoring the events from Washington. Just as the field of Democratic presidential contenders started attracting attention and gaining traction, several aides griped, Schwarzenegger entered the picture and upstaged them.

Even Dean, who last week was pictured on the cover of the three major news magazines, was left behind. A cable channel correspondent sent the Dean campaign an apologetic note, saying he had been transferred to the California story until further notice.

“Things have been quiet over the last couple of days,” said Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for the Dean campaign, known for its coast-to-coast, seven-days-a-week schedule. “It’s the Arnold factor, and it’s August. He is sucking up a lot of the oxygen.”

So as Schwarzenegger entered the stage, Dean exited. On Friday, he and his family took a three-day vacation, their first of the year.

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicago.tribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): recall

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): recall

AP-NY-08-09-03 1612EDT

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