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Rattled by the Hurried Hunt for Skeletons

August 30, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

So many rocks to turn over, so little time.

The hurry-up schedule of the California recall election is challenging political operatives who specialize in digging up dirt on candidates. Sliming can be a slow process, and the campaign aimed at ousting Gov. Gray Davis is a sprint compared with the normal gubernatorial marathon.

"You're compressing a two-year campaign cycle into two months, with all of the heartburn and anxiety that entails," said Mark Bogetich, who soils Democratic reputations as a top "opposition researcher" for Republicans. "You can't comprehensively look at everything."

And the abbreviated calendar isn't the only oddity that makes the recall effort a hand-wringer for mudslingers. Others include a perception of voter fatigue with put-down politics, a bifurcated ballot and a crowded field of contestants.

Then there is the Arnold Factor -- the purportedly salacious past of actor-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Republican's backlash-fearing foes say they are reluctant to explore his admitted drug use, alleged womanizing, and history of giving spicy interviews and posing naked for the camera. But they won't mind if the tabloids sniff around.

"With a guy like Schwarzenegger, the tabloids will be doing much more research than any campaign can," said Bob Mulholland, an advisor to the state Democratic Party and a veteran opposition-research purveyor. "We're not focusing on that."

The Schwarzenegger team is taking no chances, however. Its opposition researchers are plumbing the movie mesomorph's background to head off potentially embarrassing disclosures. Such "vulnerability studies" are a common starting point for so-called OR.

"This is something that every candidate either does or should do," said Bogetich, who is working for Schwarzenegger. "If they don't, they're crazy."

Bogetich and a staff of four are clocking long hours at a downtown Sacramento office building, prospecting for hypocrisy and scandal in the closets of Schwarzenegger's competitors. They're scanning newspaper sites on the Web, poring over voting, property tax and business records, scouring old campaign finance reports and searching civil and criminal court archives.

Among the nuggets they're hunting for:

Forgotten quotes that don't square with a candidate's current positions. Legislative votes that betray similar flip-flops. Delinquent taxes. Shady investments. Campaign donations from special interests. Lawsuits. And, of course, arrests.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego County Republican who funded the recall petition drive, later fell victim to Democratic opposition research that detailed his youthful car-theft arrests and discrepancies on his resume.

He might have seen it coming. In his reelection drive last year, Davis spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on opposition research to bloody his Republican opponent, Bill Simon Jr., who was pummeled with attack advertisements spotlighting his business troubles. Simon hit back with research that showed a pattern of Davis' taking actions benefiting special interests that gave money to his campaign.

(Last week, under Republican Party pressure to clear the way for Schwarzenegger, Simon ended his gubernatorial bid.)

Bogetich did the Simon research in 2002. He said he was convinced that it had set the stage for Davis' plunge in popularity. "If I were to pat myself on the back, it would be for beating the drum for two years on the Davis 'pay-to-play' issue," he said.

The fact that Bogetich's new assignment includes a hard look at Schwarzenegger does not mean the candidate has anything to hide, said campaign aide Sean Walsh. He said the vulnerability study is designed "mostly to knock down rumors and false assumptions."

If Bogetich does shovel up something that could damage Schwarzenegger, the campaign likely will try to defuse it -- perhaps by revealing the information first -- or at least to prepare a response in case other candidates or the media get their hands on it, aides said.

They said they were not surprised by this week's surfacing of a 1977 Oui Magazine article in which Schwarzenegger told of engaging in group sex and using marijuana and hashish. The story appeared on the celebrity-dogging Smoking Gun Web site. Smoking Gun editors said they had obtained it from someone who has nothing to do with the recall campaign.

"We're aware that there are interviews like this out there," said Walsh, who downplayed their capacity to hurt Schwarzenegger. "The public has been aware of them for years."

Bogetich typically compiles a "book" on each candidate he "scrubs." In a full-length campaign, such books can grow to hundreds of pages. They are likely to be more brief in the recall effort, if not dispensed with altogether, he said.

"You need to prioritize," Bogetich said. "We're not going to be able to spend two months going to the floor boards on every issue."

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