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Hillary and the California hijinks

AS CALIFORNIA goes, so goes Hillary Clinton? Bill Clinton is offering comfort and strategic advice to embattled California Governor Gray Davis. According to The New York Times, the former president is helping Davis fight the Oct. 7 recall election out of sympathy for another victim of right-wing politics. Clinton also feels personal loyalty to Davis, who stood by him during his impeachment trial.

But, as even Clinton loyalists know, at the end of the day with Bill and Hill, it's always about Bill and Hill. Besides helping out Davis, there is very possibly a second agenda: setting the stage for Hillary Clinton to enter the Democratic presidential race. After all, if Davis triumphs despite the threat from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who else is a big winner? Both Clintons. A Davis victory could help Hillary Clinton launch a presidential candidacy with a claim to crucial New York and California electoral votes.

She is undoubtedly controversial, and her enemies can't wait for an opportunity to drive up her political negatives as high as possible. But all the vitriol in the talk-show universe can't change these facts: Hillary Clinton has money and celebrity, the two most important ingredients in American politics today.

The country is sick of politics as usual, so sick that it is willing to embrace politics as fantasy. And that means accepting more than the candidacy of an actor who plays an action figure. Each day brings fresh headlines about another American soldier killed in Iraq. But never mind that. A toy company will release a George Bush figure next month. It depicts the man who served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era in the manner he now prefers to present himself to American voters: in the "Top Gun" garb he wore as he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare an end to war in Iraq.

Politics today is all about buzz. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential candidate has some buzz, but the rest of the Democratic presidential field remains virtually buzz-less. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, another Democratic presidential hopeful, got some buzz when he went to Philadelphia this week and ordered a cheese steak with Swiss cheese instead of the more usual Cheez Whiz.

That is reminiscent of Michael Dukakis's suggestion to Iowa farmers that they diversify their crops by growing Belgian endive, advice that reinforced his image as a Northeast elitist and haunted him not only in Iowa but elsewhere in the country. But applying the politics of 1988 to 2003 could be as outmoded as standing in line for a pay phone instead of whipping out a cellphone. Today, bad buzz may be better than no buzz.

Hillary Clinton definitely has buzz. But for the Clintons successfully to tie her political future to California, Davis has to do what most pundits assume he cannot do. He has to beat back the Terminator and the recall effort. It may sound difficult, but it's not impossible. Nothing in politics ever is. That's why the unlikeliest candidates jump into political races.

Perhaps California voters will ultimately consider the views of another bodybuilder and king of buzz, Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota.

On television this week, Ventura said he did not support the California recall election and reminded viewers that while he ran as an unconventional third party candidate, he did it during a regularly scheduled election cycle.

Ventura, a Navy SEAL during Vietnam and a mayor before he ran for governor, played by the rules and won by the rules -- which included same-day voter registration, allowing voters to register and vote for him at the same time.

Rather than reveling solely in the wackiness of the California recall effort, shouldn't the media make a good faith effort to examine the budget crisis that is the underpinning of this particular moment in political time? On July 29, the San Francisco Chronicle published a thoughtful editorial entitled "Distorting the budget crisis." Noting that the paper's editorial pages had taken Davis to task in the past for "displaying insufficient leadership," the editorial went on to say: "But to blame him for creating it is an even more egregious claim than Al Gore taking partial credit for creating the Internet."

Sorting through a state budget debacle as big as California's is a matter of fact, not buzz. It is much more entertaining to watch Arnold on Jay Leno, follow Bill to Hollywood, and wonder whether Hillary is getting ready to steal the show and the buzz from the rest of the Democrats who want to replace George W. Bush.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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