LOS ANGELES – Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search) is running hard to Gov. Gray Davis' (search) left, a high-risk strategy that assumes liberal Democrats will outnumber conservative Republicans on election day.
Bustamante on Thursday called for state regulation of gasoline supplies and prices, an idea no state has ever tried.
"Californians are being gouged," Bustamante said as he stood in front of a gas station in Sacramento. "No other state has done it but it's about time we do because California has felt the largest sting. The highest increases and the highest profit margins that the oil companies are receiving are right here in California."
Californians have seen gasoline prices soar this month. In Los Angeles the average price per gallon is $2.23. A ruptured pipeline in Arizona increased that state's reliance on gasoline refined in California. That in turn reduced available supplies in California at the height of the summer driving season.
Bustamante proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would treat gasoline as a commodity subject to Public Utilities Commission control.
"With gasoline being the absolute lifeblood ... it is about time that Californians had a say in being able to make sure that they are not being gouged," Bustamante said. "They have to justify their rate increases. You can't just willy-nilly go out and decide that you're going have the highest profit margins in California."
If the PUC were to control supplies and prices, oil companies would have to seek approval for most price increases. That could prove time-consuming and cumbersome, since gasoline supplies tend to fluctuate based on refinery capacity, world supplies and consumer demand.
Legal experts wondered if a state could regulate gasoline supplies and prices since gasoline is often sold to customers across state lines and therefore subject to federal interstate commerce regulations. Refineries in California, for example, sell gasoline to Arizona. Slapping supply or price controls on those refineries might violate Arizona's right to negotiate its own agreements based on available and projected supplies and demand.
Political analysts said the idea continues Bustamante's hard turn to the left.
"Bustamante is running as some would say a '60s or '70s Democrat," former Democratic political strategist Susan Estrich told Fox News. "If he really had to get to 51 percent [in the recall election] he would have a very difficult time doing it based on a platform of raising taxes, regulating gasoline, and in some sense imposing a liberal agenda that most Democrats have concluded doesn't win elections anymore."
With all the attention devoted to California's volatile polls, one salient point appears to have been missed. Bustamante is under-performing. His highest poll ratings show him drawing less than a third of the vote
"When there is one Democrat on the ballot and 45 percent of the state is Democratic you would expect that Democrat to be doing better than Cruz is," Estrich said. "The problem Cruz has he's only pulling about the Democrats and the reason is quite frankly is because of questions that many Democrats have about his ability."
Bustamante has called for $8 billion in higher taxes on business property, cigarettes, alcohol and new vehicles that cost more than $20,000.
Republican strategists say Bustamante's message runs counter to voter impulses to see lower taxes and moves to attract businesses. Polls show voters are irked by the state's slumping economy, high taxes and sluggish job growth.
"My concern is that Cruz is getting a free ride right now," said GOP strategist Kevin Spillane. "He's running alone and Republicans are running with three candidates in the race. That's allowed him to escape scrutiny."
Estrich says Bustamante's strategy is built on one fundamental assumption -- California's liberals will vote in higher numbers than its conservatives.
The first part of the theory is that liberals are more likely to show up to vote for Bustamante as an alternative to Davis, a noted centrist whom liberals have grown to dislike nearly as much as conservatives. The second part is that conservative Republicans, who, like liberals, tend to turn out in high numbers, will shun Arnold Schwarzenegger's (search) social liberalism.
Schwarzenegger is pro-choice, supports domestic partnerships, backs increased gun control and approves of medical marijuana. These positions are virtually identical to Davis' and could sour social conservatives.
"Who's going to vote this time around?" Estrich asked. "Generally, when you have low-turnout elections, it's hard-core ideologues. So the hard-core ideologues on the right are not going to be happy with Arnold."
Which is why Bustamante sees an opening.
"Cruz, on the other hand, is betting that the people who are going to vote on the Democratic side are going to be the people who love regulation, whether it's constitutional or not, who love higher taxes on the rich, because it isn't them," Estrich said.
But Alan Hoffenblum (search), a former GOP strategist, says he expects higher turnout and doubts if Bustamante's liberal pitch will suffice.
"If Bustamante gets hard-core Democrats -- the 'I-will-vote-for-a-Democrat-and-only-a-Democrat,' crowd -- he'll get about 30 percent of the vote," Hoffenblum said. "And I'm not sure that is going to be a plurality."
To be recalled, a true majority of voters -- 50 percent plus 1 -- have to vote to recall Davis. If he is recalled, the next governor of California will be the candidate who receives the most votes on the replacement ballot. In other words, Davis could be recalled even if he captures 49.9 percent of the vote and his replacement could be elected with a plurality of, say, 35 percent.
Either way, the key for Schwarzenegger, analysts say, is to win the backing of Republicans who care more about fiscal policy than social issues while at the same time appealing to independents and moderate Democrats who've also grown tired of Davis.