Monday, May 15, 2006 | Let me start off by pointing out that I am notoriously awful at predicting the outcomes of elections.

In 2003, I boldly predicted to friends and associates, for example, that Cruz Bustamante would be governor. Not that I wanted him to be. I was a “Peter” partisan: I thought the best race would have been just Peter Ueberroth versus Peter Camejo. They seemed to be the smartest candidates and the only ones who used more than just empty platitudes in their talks.

And Schwarzenegger? I thought everyone was like me and simply could not look at the guy without picturing that scene at the end of Total Recall where his face is about to explode.

I always said the Democrats – and all their Hollywood friends – should have just run a commercial containing a bunch of clips of Schwarzenegger in his strangest scenes as an actor. Seriously: Some kind of montage that cycled through him pulling off his face, or a few scenes from that movie “Junior” where he was pregnant – never mind all the classic quotes in the documentary “Pumping Iron.”

I knew, however, that Californians might enjoy throwing Gov. Grey Davis out – if only for the sheer spectacle of it. But in the end, California voters, I thought, would choose a Democrat. Why? Because they’re Democrats.

I always take away lessons from campaigns, however. Since Schwarzenegger’s election, for instance, I’ve been working on a theory that voters like doing crazy things. If given a choice between doing something mundane – like electing another dull product of the two-party system – or doing something historic – like electing an Austrian immigrant movie star – they’ll choose historic. Look at Donna Frye’s write-in candidacy for mayor in 2004. It’s entirely possible that a few key voters decided to write her name in just for the thrill of helping something special happen – pushing a renegade write-in candidate toward a victory.

She almost made it.

I think, in fact, the inclination to do something unique will be a factor in a presidential campaign if there’s a viable candidate for president who is also a woman.

But I digress. Here’s a prediction for you: This race between Brian Bilbray and Francine Busby for the 50th Congressional District is not as clear cut and simple to predict as many have said.

I was on a radio show weeks ago along with two prominent local journalists and the topic of the 50th and the race between Busby and Bilbray emerged. The two guys I was with, both of whom I respect, completely disparaged even the mild suggestion that Francine Busby could have a shot at winning this seat. A Democrat, they said, has no chance in the foreseeable future of ever winning the 50th district. It’s too heavily Republican, they argued.

What about the specter of Randy “Duke” Cunningham? Couldn’t the disgust about his transgressions combine with sagging support for Republicans nationwide to help Busby squeak out a victory or at least come close?

No, they said. And they didn’t allow an inch.

Yet now look. A recent SurveyUSA poll conducted for KGTV Channel 10 news showed Busby and Bilbray both at 45 percent – hardly a cinch for Bilbray. The New York Times reported Sunday that the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has so far spent $1.9 million trying to defeat Busby.

It’s not as though Republicans don’t have other races to work on this year. Would the party really be spending that kind of dough on this campaign if it was so incomprehensible that Busby might win?

Actually, what’s really incomprehensible was that local journalists could have pronounced this race over so soon. While Busby may not win, the polls and the firefight between her and Bilbray indicate that neither her consultants nor the Republicans believe this race is a foregone conclusion.

You can say it’s unlikely she will win. You can say it would be amazing and a historical anomaly for her to win, but you can’t say it’s a done deal that she’ll lose.

Not that I want Busby to win. She’s not really that impressive. Her most noteworthy accomplishment, it seems, was to have the courage to run against Cunningham back when he was still a war hero and powerful incumbent and before he was revealed to be such a disgraceful and disgusting boob.

And Bilbray? There’s hardly more baggage at Lindbergh Field than what he’s bringing to the race.

It is a race, though – a good one. Anyone who writes it off as history before we’re even through with the month of May suffers from the same thing I did in 2003: an unworthy reliance on demographics. Just because a place traditionally votes for a certain party doesn’t mean things can’t suddenly change. Look at Schwarzenegger. Look at the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

I thought Romney was going to lose. Come on, a Mormon Republican as governor of Massachusetts?

I was completely wrong and so, I believe, are those that say the race for the 50th was done before it started.

It’s the first anniversary of Scott Lewis on Politics, or SLOP and so to celebrate, you’ll notice we’ll have a lot of new offerings. Below is a new occasional feature of SLOP : New Rules (yes, the concept is unabashedly stolen from Bill Maher’s end-of-show routine on his HBO program “Real Time”).

New Rule No. 1: You can’t be for something before you’re against it unless you explain yourself.

Am I the only one who’s confused by The San Diego Union Tribune’s recent editorial advising readers to reject the National City sales tax initiative? After all, the paper endorsed a similar initiative for National City six months ago?

We remember because the U-T at that time was writing editorial after editorial deriding mayoral candidate Donna Frye for her suggestion that the city could use a half-cent sales tax increase. Yet they quietly endorsed the National City plan. Voters apparently weren’t moved by the U-T’s endorsement then and voted against it. And now the U-T has inexplicably changed its stance advising readers last week to force National City to reform itself before they give it more money.

I mean, as I’ve written before, I’m all for people having the courage to change their minds but the U-T’s editorial board owes it to readers to explain why this initiative is so significantly worse than the previous one.

And, I suppose, if we’re going to do the opposite of what the Union-Tribune recommends all the time, it’d be nice not to have it recommend completely contradictory things only months apart.

New Rule No. 2: People must stop griping about negative ads.

What’s wrong with negative ads? Sure, some of them are stupid. Many were up in arms about the Republicans’ careful piecing together of a quote Francine Busby allegedly uttered about a suspected child pornographer. But if people are really dumb enough to let that kind of thing affect their vote, there’s no amount of hand wringing that we can do that’s going to make it right.

Negative ads are great. Some of the ads in the Busby/Bilbray battle are genuinely impressive rhetorical jabs. There is a place in our political system for critiquing opponents. Successful criticisms serve a purpose: If voters still choose a candidate after hearing the worst that anybody can say about them, then the winners of campaigns deservedly should have confidence that while they do their jobs, the voters trust them, warts and all. If a negative attack succeeds and persuades voters to avoid a certain candidate, that candidate has two options: Either successfully refute it, or give voters ever more reason to become supporters.

If you can’t do either, you don’t deserve to be in office.

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