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California's accidental politician

Bustamante, a onetime fruit picker, could become California's first Latino governor in 120 years.

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For months, California Gov. Gray Davis has ridiculed the recall as a scheme to get a Republican into the governor's office through the back door. It is no small irony, then, that the man perhaps likeliest to walk through that door is his Democratic lieutenant governor.

It would not be the first time California's political order had clicked into place for Cruz Bustamante. He is, in many ways, an accidental politician - a staffer who had to be persuaded to run for office only 10 years ago, then an assemblyman who became Speaker largely because term limits had eliminated the Old Guard.

Along the way, though, this onetime farmworker and college dropout has carved his own political identity, rising to his current office through a mixture of hard work and engaging personal skills more reminiscent of President Bush than of his boss.

The only major Democrat in the recall race is not likely to bring hordes of gawking surfers to hear a speech on a beach boardwalk, as GOP rival Arnold Schwarzenegger has. Even now, Mr. Bustamante seems almost apologetic for his success, famously poking fun at his portly profile and balding head. Yet with polls showing him even, and in some cases ahead of Mr. Schwarzenegger, Bustamante has again found what could be his perfect moment to ascend higher than many - including himself - believed possible.

"To his surprise as much as anyone else's, he's gone from a staffer to the second highest-ranking official" in 10 years, says Derry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant who has known Bustamante since his staff days. His career "has taken him to places that he never expected to go."

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