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In California, a Senate Race in Need of Oxygen

California political die-hards who thought the 2004 Senate race would begin in earnest when Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) finally took office may be in for some disappointment.

Although Schwarzenegger is scheduled to be sworn in next Monday, and while the filing deadline for Senate candidates is only three weeks away, the Senate race — or at least the March 2, 2004, Republican primary — is still not likely to attract much attention.

That’s because the political oxygen for the next several weeks will still likely be sucked up by the extraordinary drama of the movie action hero taking the reins of state government in the middle of his repudiated predecessor’s term. After a brief honeymoon period, followed by the Christmas holidays, Schwarzenegger will deliver his state of the state address and submit a proposed operating budget in January, two highly anticipated events that will preoccupy the state’s political community.

By February, Democratic presidential candidates will be descending on California in a major way, mining for the Golden State’s rich lode of delegates in the March 2 primary. So the Senate candidates, who toiled in obscurity throughout the wild recall campaign that led to Schwarzenegger’s election, will probably be forgotten again.

“It won’t be ’til the last six weeks [before the primary] that people start to focus,” predicted Ken Khachigian, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan who is serving as a senior adviser to former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, one of the three Republican candidates currently in the Senate race.

Marin is competing in the GOP primary for the right to face two-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) next November with former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey and term-limited state Assemblyman Tony Strickland.

It is an unknown and, to this point, undistinguished field, prompting GOP strategists in both California and Washington, D.C., to shop around for a better-known candidate who could enter the fray in the late stages. So far, speculation has focused on Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) and former California Secretary of State Bill Jones (R).

But while Dreier seems to be enjoying the extra attention since he served as co-chairman of Schwarzenegger’s campaign (his stint as head of the transition team is coming to a close), he is considered unlikely to make the race.

In Washington late last week, Dreier told a group of students from his alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, that he “really doesn’t want to run” for Senate despite the encouragement from his colleagues, which he said he has been receiving regularly.

While Dreier said he would like to give Schwarzenegger “at least one Republican in the Senate,” he also said that he would prefer to find someone else to run — though he did not rule out running completely.

Golden State political insiders are all over the map when it comes to interpreting Jones’ plans. Jones, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, told The Associated Press last weekend that he would not run for Senate if Dreier did, but he did not elaborate. There has been little evidence that he has been putting together a campaign team, however.

While a Jones bid against Boxer would still be considered an uphill climb, he was the last California Republican to win a statewide election until Schwarzenegger’s victory last month, and he is well-regarded among party regulars.

Jones, who is also on Schwarzenegger’s transition team, was rumored to be in line for a top job in the new administration — either chief of staff or finance director — but both of those slots have been filled.

Jones was the subject of an unflattering article in the Los Angeles Times on Monday about former California election officials who have gone to work for companies peddling computerized voting machines to states and counties.

Jones, who as secretary of state recommended that California get rid of its antiquated voting machines, is now a consultant for Sequoia Voting Systems. Although his relationship with the company is perfectly legal, it has distressed some former colleagues.

The elections registrar in Los Angeles County, which continues to use punch cards for elections, complained to the newspaper that while in office, “we heard [Jones] extolling the virtues of touch screens. And now he’s working for a touch screen company.”

One Republican political consultant said of the Times article, “It’s not a great way to start a would-be campaign.”

If the Republican Senate field is set, it is difficult to handicap a primary among Casey, Marin and Strickland, especially one that is likely to be low cost and low volume.

Marin, a moderate Latina, has potential but is unproven. She has, however, just signed on three wealthy GOP donors — Alex Spanos, Gregory Slayton and Burt Bachman — to be the finance co-chairmen of her campaign.

Casey has some support in Silicon Valley, but as a sometime donor to former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats she is suspect to many Republicans.

Conventional wisdom suggests that as a young, articulate conservative, Strickland could have a leg up in a closed GOP primary. But Schwarzenegger’s improbable victory shattered all conventional wisdom in California — which gives some Republicans hope that they may be able to oust Boxer in the end.

Carolyn Shuckerow contributed to this report.

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