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Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration and now a Stanford University professor, has stated very clearly she would rather attend college basketball games and help choose the college football playoff teams than be a U.S. senator.

At 61, she says she prefers a secure job in academe, playing the piano in her spare time, mentoring students and then considering an executive-level job if the Republicans take back the White House. She probably would also rather not face the inevitable questions a campaign would bring about her role in government deceptions that led to this country’s long and costly war in Iraq.

“A campaign for the Senate is out of the question,” Rice has said. She’s done nothing counter to that statement, not raising money, not speechifying or anything else, keeping a low profile in general even as others visibly line up to run for the seat Democrat Barbara Boxer will vacate next year.

And yet, the latest Field Poll shows Rice leading the senatorial field, including Democrats and Republicans, Latinos and Anglos and blacks.

This is remarkable in California, a state that hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential or Senate election since 1988 and one where Democratic voter registration runs 15 percent ahead of the GOP’s.

What does it mean? Maybe that voters are not yet paying much attention, despite the highly publicized machinations of figures like state Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and numerous members of Congress from Orange County’s Loretta Sanchez to John Garamendi of Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County.

Some survey respondents told Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo they’re not ready for political action. “It’s just too far away,” said one. “I am waiting for more information to come out.”

But Rice’s standing three points ahead of current Democratic front-runner Harris probably also indicates the same thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated 12 years ago when he dominated the recall election that ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis: Politics in California has never been only about party. It’s always also been governed by personalities, and stars from other fields can translate that into political success.

Republican Schwarzenegger won the recall and later was easily re-elected not because he’s a distinguished politician or statesman, but because of his repute as a muscleman actor.

Similarly, when the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa won election to the Senate, it was because of the television exposure he got while countering massive student protests as president of San Francisco State University. Onetime soft-shoe dancer and actor George Murphy, also won a Senate seat as a Republican because of his prior reputation. And John Tunney later won that same seat mostly because his father was a heavyweight boxing champion.

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A quick look at how the only Republicans avowedly considering a run for Boxer’s seat fare in the Field survey also demonstrates that a lack of star power can be fatal when your party is in the minority.

San Diego County Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, given to aphorisms about how his family has lived the American Dream, draws just a 20 percent level of voters “inclined to support” him. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who ran unsuccessfully for state controller last year, and former state GOP chairmen Tom del Beccarro and Duf Sundheim have similar levels of support.

Almost every Democrat in the potential field does much better, with Sanchez and fellow Congress members Garamendi, Jackie Speier, Xavier Becerra and Adam Schiff all drawing support in the 29 to 39 percent range, well above the mine-run Republicans but far behind Rice.

It all goes to show that while the Republican label has been thoroughly tarnished in California and the GOP has done little to shake off the anti-Latino reputation it got from Gov. Pete Wilson’s all-out support for the ill-fated anti-illegal immigrant 1994 Proposition 187, individual Republicans can still do well.

Which means there’s still potential for a healthy two-party system in this state. To make that real, though, the GOP must recruit charismatic candidates with star power – like Condoleezza Rice.

Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.

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