DELANO, Calif. - He is the unlikeliest of antidotes to the Terminator.
Short, paunchy and balding, Cruz Bustamante is a mild-mannered career politician with the charisma of a bank teller. At a sweltering outdoor rally with farm workers in California's Central Valley, where he is the only one wearing a business suit, he delivers his brief remarks, first in English, then in Spanish, by carefully reading from a prepared text.
Despite his cautious, low-key approach to campaigning, Bustamante is neck-and-neck with Arnold Schwarzenegger's high-wattage candidacy in the dizzying recall contest. If the voters fire Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in next month's election, Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, is the only Democrat with a chance to take his place and keep a Republican out of the governor's office.
Bustamante is much more than the anti-Arnold, however. He is on the verge of becoming the most important symbol, in this state and nationally, of the growing power of Hispanics in U.S. politics.
For that to happen, California voters would have to dump Davis and replace him with Bustamante, which would make the 50-year-old grandfather the first Hispanic ever elected governor of California. It would also mean that the Republican drive to oust Davis would have had the unintended consequence of elevating a Latino Democrat to the governorship of the most populous state at a time when both parties are fighting for the allegiance of Hispanic voters in next year's presidential election.
First elected to public office 10 years ago, Bustamante became the first Latino to serve as Assembly speaker in the state legislature, where he got mixed reviews for his performance, and the first Hispanic elected statewide in more than a century, when he became lieutenant governor in 1998. But his emergence as an ethnic hero was a surprise.
His home is the state's fertile San Joaquin Valley, far from the densely populated urban barrios where the overwhelming majority of California's 11 million Hispanics (roughly one-third of all U.S. Hispanics) live. His centrist views reflect the conservative outlook of his geographic base, positioning him to the right of most state Democrats, but giving him crossover appeal to moderate and independent non-Hispanic voters. He favors the death penalty and has drawn criticism from environmentalists for favoring agribusiness interests on issues such as pesticides and endangered species.
Growing up in the 1950s, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, Bustamante spoke English around his working-class home. He has traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in recent years to polish Spanish skills that he admits are less than perfect.
"Our parents made sure that we maintained our cultural awareness, but we were also assimilated," said his brother Ron.
A college dropout (he finally got his degree this year), Bustamante is remembered by neighbors as a quiet youngster. Fellow politicians, underestimating him, have called him a plodder and attributed much of his success to luck. But this summer he shrewdly frightened all the other leading Democrats in the state out of the race, according to insiders, by telling them he had pledges of $10 million in donations, mainly from Indian tribes with an interest in state regulation of casino gambling.
Most of that money has yet to appear. Bustamante, who says he's still trying to raise $10 million to $12 million, has only about $3 million in the bank or on the way so far.
Unlike the wealthy Schwarzenegger, who is pumping money into his own campaign, or the governor, a legendary fund-raiser, Bustamante has no personal wealth and little experience collecting large sums.
"Although I really do admire Arnold's physique, I'd rather have his checkbook right now," Bustamante told reporters after accepting the United Farm Workers union's endorsement at a rally on the edge of a sun-baked field here, where the late Caesar Chavez, the union's president, made his home.
In California, the governor and lieutenant governor run for office separately, not as a ticket, and are often at odds. Bustamante and Davis have long had differences, especially on issues important to Latinos, such as immigrant rights. The two are avoiding each other on the campaign trail, even though Davis has grudgingly called Bustamante the best-qualified candidate to replace him.
The governor's campaign has begun running TV ads featuring a plea by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular politician, for Californians to "just say no" on the recall and not vote for any of the 135 replacement candidates on the second half of the ballot. But campaign aides say Davis might be forced to ask voters to support Bustamante in order to maximize turnout.
"This is Bustamante's great chance," said Ray Wolfinger, a University of California-Berkeley political scientist. "This is, in effect, a free Democratic nomination as far as he's concerned. He'll never have as great a chance as he has now."
Yet the tortured calculus of the election is forcing Bustamante to take a stance at odds with his own ambitions. He is advising Californians to keep the governor in office by voting "no" on the recall, then "yes" on Bustamante, as an "insurance policy" if Davis is recalled.
"He's walking a very fine line," said Harry Pachon, a University of Southern California expert on Latino affairs. If he were to openly advocate dumping Davis, Bustamante would be seen as betraying the party's stance against the recall, and "then he loses the white liberal vote."
At the same time, notes Miguel Contreras, the top labor leader in Southern California, Bustamante "has to separate himself from the governor," who is highly unpopular with voters in both parties who fault him for the state's huge budget gap. Alone among the major candidates, Bustamante is calling for new taxes - $12 billion in higher income taxes on the rich, higher property taxes on commercial landowners and increases in cigarette and liquor taxes.
Bustamante is avoiding overt appeals to ethnic pride, but many analysts believe Latinos could hold the balance of power in the Oct. 7 election. Their clout was reflected in a recent Los Angeles Times poll showing Bustamante leading Schwarzenegger by 13 percentage points. That advantage was based on a record turnout of Hispanics - roughly twice the proportion in last fall's election. Most politicians see that as unrealistically high and envision a tighter race with Schwarzenegger.
Bustamante "does inspire our Latino community," said U.S. Rep. Hilda L. Solis, who represents heavily Latino East Los Angeles. "I think that is something that will help to push people to come out and vote."
But some less educated voters, including Latinos and other minorities, might stay home or fail to back Bustamante because they don't understand the recall process, which allows voters who oppose the recall to pick a replacement candidate anyway.
Right now, "it is mass confusion," said Jan Perry, a Democratic city councilwoman from predominantly black and Hispanic central Los Angeles, adding that she is worried that not enough is being done to educate Democratic voters.
The cash-short Bustamante campaign might ultimately be forced to depend on Davis, the party and its allies in organized labor to mobilize enough Democrats to prevent Schwarzenegger or another Republican from becoming governor. If they succeed, and a significant number of Democrats also vote to rid the state of Davis, as polls suggest they will, Bustamante would become governor and serve out the remaining three years of the term.
To prevent that from happening, Schwarzenegger is playing on the public's disgust with the leadership in the state capital, by portraying the lieutenant governor as part of the governor's team. "Bustamante is Gray Davis with a receding hairline and a mustache," the Republican said last week.
Bustamante, displaying a puckish sense of humor, laughs off the attack. "I say: All you receding men in California, unite," he told a CNN interviewer. "I'm your candidate."
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