If you’re keeping an eye on California’s gubernatorial recall election, now seven weeks away, then the Aug. 4 candidates’ debate might bring to mind an earlier confrontation.

That flashback? In 2003, five candidates in a California recall race gathering on the campus of California State University at Sacramento to make the case against then-Gov. Gray Davis (D). The highlight (or lowlight): Arnold Schwarzenegger cracking wise at Arianna Huffington’s expense (“I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in ‘Terminator 4’”), with Huffington later claiming that Schwarzenegger was alluding to a “Terminator 3” scene in which a female robot gets a toilet swirlie.

That debate represented political diversity — two Republicans, one Democrat, one independent and one Green Party member — whereas Wednesday’s 90-minute showcase, live from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, features five Republicans who hope to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

The question: Will these five wannabes play nice and keep the focus on the target-rich Newsom, or will this be another example of the California GOP’s “circular firing squad” — i.e., its proclivity for infighting instead of party unity?

We’ve already seen a preview of this mutually assured destruction. John Cox, back for another try after losing to Newsom in 2018, held a press conference last week to accuse party insiders of wanting to stack the deck in favor of his moderate recall rival, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Now, afforded Wednesday’s opportunity to tell a statewide viewing audience why he should be California’s next governor, will Cox spell out Newsom’s shortcomings? Or will he devote his time to questioning Faulconer’s conservative bona fides? (Faulconer is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.)

And if punched, will Faulconer counter-punch? He could note that he’s won elections in a city whose local electorate mirrors that of the state (Democrats now outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in “America’s Finest City”), whereas Cox earned an anemic 38.1 percent of the vote in that 2018 gubernatorial fight against Newsom.

Who stands to benefit from such infighting, other than Newsom? Try Larry Elder, the conservative radio host who, according to a new poll, is for the moment enjoying a lead over his fellow GOP recall candidates. But does Elder have any policy substance, or talents beyond his ability to hold the attention of radio listeners? Personality can take you a long way in a California politics (just ask Schwarzenegger). But in a state where Republicans are on the short side of a 22-point gap in voter registration — in 2003, the Democratic advantage was 8.4 percentage points — Elder will need to display more nuance if he wants to expand his base beyond malcontents who can work an AM dial.

Eighteen years ago, California’s quirky reelection held America’s political attention for its novelty — no governor of a U.S. state had been successfully recalled since 1921 — and an “only in California” field that included media stars, former child actors and porn peddlers.

The 2021 recall, with 46 candidates (down from 135 back in 2003) lacks such ostentatiousness, other than the confusing candidacy of the oft-confused Caitlyn Jenner (who passed on this debate), which is why this contest is less a seismic event than something akin to cicadas emerging from underground every 17 years.

The shame is that, if not for the GOP’s intraparty sour grapes, California’s Sept. 14 election would be a good dry run for next year’s congressional elections. In Newsom’s California, Republicans can point to progressivism run amok — a Democratic regime that has failed to deliver on curbing homelessness and building affordable housing, seems uninterested in controlling petty crimes, has made a hash of contradictory covid policies, and fails at such basic needs as distributing unemployment checks. (Here’s an evenhanded look at Newsom promises kept and unkept.)

The Democratic governor’s approach to keeping his job is pretty much what you can expect of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s caucus a year from now: Point to conservative extremism (in a deep-blue state like California, the starting points are abortion rights and immigration and refugee communities), coupled with a five-letter pejorative: Trump. (Donald Trump failed to clear 35 percent of the statewide vote in either of his presidential elections.)

Newsom’s ability to drive home those wedges is why he’s still a favorite to survive this challenge, even if there are ominous clouds on the horizon — including a new coronavirus variant spreading across the state, wildfires and parents outraged by school mask mandates.

As for Republicans? It’s Groundhog Day. With the exception of that relentless campaigner Pete Wilson, Republicans have repeatedly failed for decades to rally a statewide constituency. The perennial dissension in the party ranks is one reason California is likely to have Gavin Newsom to kick around after September’s vote.

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