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Election stuck in the spin cycle

August 13, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

In the long years before the great Age of Discovery, cartographers had a handy device for dealing with the limits of their knowledge: They drew an edge to the world and beyond it set a vast sea. Some of the more enterprising filled it with huge whirlpools and imaginary beasts; others simply penned an inscription, "Here there be dragons."

Such are the political waters California now is navigating. Whether there is rich, unexplored territory or an abyss in the state's future remains to be seen, but here -- beyond the margins of the known world -- California's people and the world's press already have found a fascinating, if fanciful, creature in the actor-turned-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Maintaining his status as the campaign's untouchable object of desire is the principle strategy of the shrewd crew of Republican political insiders producing Arnold's show. Their intention is to keep him as far away from the serious political press as possible for as long as possible, while making him available for photos and softball interviews in the entertainment and foreign press. Hence the appearances on "Access Hollywood" and "Larry King Live" and the various magazine photo spreads without interviews.

In other words, an election centered on personalities and not issues.

As Schwarzenegger campaign chief George Gorton told the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters on Tuesday, "This is not a position election. This is a character election. People are looking at character here. They're looking for somebody who will go in and clean house."

Sean Walsh, Arnold's press spokesman, agreed. "Our strategy is to make it clear that Gray Davis is the problem in California. California wants a vital leader, someone who is tough enough to get the job done."

In other words, no political journalists with their irritating obsession with incidental details -- like, say, the still-unresolved energy fiasco or that stupid budget deficit -- need apply.

Will it work?

"Yes," said CNN political analyst William Schneider, who as a longtime consultant to The Times Poll has a deep familiarity with California politics. "Voters don't care what's in the political press. And, in fact, the voters Schwarzenegger needs most, young people and independents, don't read newspapers. He's going to go around the political press and speak directly through them, through the vehicle of his celebrity and the access it gives him to the entertainment media and foreign press."

Arnold, said Schneider, "is a walking media event. He doesn't need to care about political journalists wailing because he hasn't spelled out his position on water resources. He knows perfectly well the voters don't care. This election is about the fact that everybody hates Gray Davis and everybody loves Arnold; that's what we see in all the polls. Arnold is universally liked and admired and Davis is universally despised, even by most Democrats. It's a race with no partisan or ideological shape."

Veteran Democratic political strategist Rick Taylor concurs. "The good news for Schwarzenegger is that this is a short campaign," he said. "He has a great opportunity to make this work, if he can avoid mistakes. Right now, the public is angry enough that his strategy of staying away from the serious media may work. The voters are mad because Gray Davis is the most unappealing and uninspiring governor this state has ever had. People are in a 'let's show government' mood."

Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg advised Clint Eastwood on his successful run for mayor of Carmel and played a key role in the last two successful California recall campaigns, efforts that removed Howard Miller from the L.A. Unified School District's board and the late Doris Allen from an Orange County Assembly seat. He thinks the sheer size of the international press corps that has descended on this recall may help Schwarzenegger through the next seven weeks.

"Having this many reporters following him around makes it easier for Arnold to stall," he said. "When the traveling press corps grows to this size, it is governed by the lowest common denominator, the shouted question that elicits a quip that makes for a good sound bite rather than a substantive question," he said. "Basically, this allows him to stick with a strategy of using the entertainment press to speak directly to voters who are generically angry."

In fact, Schneider argues, "the only way Schwarzenegger can damage himself with this strategy is to say something really dumb that becomes an issue showing he has absolutely no comprehension of something important. He can't risk an unguarded answer that's a howler, one that lets the political press say he doesn't know anything and causes everybody to start laughing at him."

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