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Huffington Calls Schwarzenegger GOP Insider

The columnist, aided by advisors who helped Jesse Ventura become Minnesota's governor, tries to claim for herself the outsider role.

August 15, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

TV commentator and columnist Arianna Huffington is calling on veterans of Jesse Ventura's independent campaign for governor of Minnesota to help her recast Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Republican insider, while claiming for herself the outsider role in the California gubernatorial recall.

"If we can, it will be another Shock II," a replay of the Ventura upset, said Dean Barkley, Huffington's campaign manager and the chairman of Ventura's successful 1998 run.

"That will leave Arnold free to go make 'Terminator IV,' " added Bill Hillsman, Ventura's former advertising chief.

"I just can't see why voters would elect another product of the two-party system that created the problem," Barkley said. "A Republican cannot fix the problem. It's going to take an outsider with courage."

"I think Arianna is that person, and we need to convince voters that's true," he added. "We're going to battle Arnold for that independent voting bloc."

The team met its first test Thursday with the revelation that Huffington -- who has said the recall is being spearheaded by "an embittered cult of right-wing radicals who have overdosed on tax-cut Kool-Aid" -- had paid no state income tax in the last two years and less than $800 in federal taxes.

At a news conference in Beverly Hills, she said that her writing and research expenses were greater than her earnings during that period, and that she had paid $150,000 in property and payroll taxes.

"I think the media made a bigger deal out of it than they should have," Barkley said. "She's a small-business woman and didn't do as well as she would have liked to."

"I don't think it's anything terminal," he said, "but it was a distraction that we definitely didn't need."

Van Jones, Huffington's Northern California campaign director, said he considered the revelation "irrelevant."

"In any given year, her expenses rise and fall. Whatever Arianna pays in taxes would be a drop in the bucket to the deficit compared to the corporate loopholes she's talking about," he said.

A bigger challenge to Huffington's insurgency strategy is Schwarzenegger's ability to command media coverage, her team believes.

The Huffington campaign said it would rely heavily on the Internet, which analysts say is likely to reach the people who might vote for her, including those who did not turn out in the November gubernatorial election.

"The Internet is to the progressive left what talk radio is to the conservative right," said Mark DiCamillo, director of California's independent Field Poll. "For somebody like Huffington, that's a natural, because that's the constituency she's after."

Still, although "everyone likes to point to Minnesota and Jesse Ventura coming out of nowhere and winning the governorship, there's a major structural difference," he added.

Voters In Minnesota could register the day of the election, but in California they must register by Sept. 22 for the Oct. 7 election. "In California, you can't just seize the moment and show up at the polls."

That leaves little time to waste.

Bivouacked in her Brentwood mansion, Huffington and a war room of operatives sat around a dining room table Sunday for their first full face-to-face staff meeting.

Campaign co-director Barkley sweated in the heat.

A rumpled Hillsman arrived from LAX, set down his bags, and scrutinized a reporter.

"Nice to meet you," he growled, "so far."

"The next couple of days is going to be wall-to-wall Arnold," warned the campaign's chief strategist, Bill Zimmerman, who led the successful effort behind Proposition 36, which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent California drug offenders, and helped direct the 1984 presidential campaign of Gary Hart.

In every issue Schwarzenegger carefully sidesteps, Huffington, 53, sees an opportunity.

"Speaking out against special interests is not a sound bite I picked up on the way to my announcement speech," Huffington said, in a reference to the actor. "I have a body of work."

"I don't know how you can be against special interests and endorse the Bush economic policies, which I assume he will," she said.

How to eliminate the deficit? Close corporate tax loopholes. Amend Proposition 13 to allow commercial property taxes to rise to full market value. Use the revenue to bolster public schools and hospitals and deliver more affordable housing. Put nonviolent drug offenders into rehabilitation, not jails. Support clean energy. "Protect the most vulnerable among us," she said.

Readers of Huffington's twice-weekly columns and best-selling books are already familiar with these stands, but she would also like the major candidates to engage in televised debates.

Huffington -- a past president of the Cambridge University debating society in England -- said several major campaigns have already agreed, but "Arnold won't say."

"Debates helped Ventura a lot," Hillsman said, adding: "In the Ventura campaign, we had to recognize something and tap into that vein. It's not hidden here. People are mad. Really mad."

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