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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN | THE HOMESTRETCH

Celebrity Campaign Sticks to the Script

Schwarzenegger is thronged wherever he goes, but he avoids fielding questions.

October 04, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — It is Sunday morning, nine days before the recall election, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has a crowd problem. The problem isn't how to draw one, it's how to accommodate nearly 2,000 people streaming like picnic ants to the tiny airfield here where his white private jet has just set down.

Schwarzenegger isn't troubled by any of this -- as one of the world's highest-paid actors, he is practiced at soaking up massive amounts of attention. The challenge goes to anyone who tries to get close enough to ask a question of the Republican front-runner for governor, who has mostly managed to avoid unscripted, in-the-trenches contact with voters, journalists and rivals in the first political campaign of his multifaceted life.

Bodyguards surround him. His town hall sessions are by invitation only.

He has passed on every debate but one, and that one came with prepared questions. Campaign stops average about 20 minutes, and he doesn't like to stick around to talk afterward. Media interviews last about as long, more akin to those red-carpet chats on Oscar night.

None of which seems to matter the least to his fans. A single news conference can draw 1,500 people, the throngs so intense that at times his aides have sustained cuts and bruises. A CNN reporter got caught in one and lost her shoe.

"Every time we reposition him, even just 30 feet, you have to deal with sometimes thousands of people literally trying to cling onto him," said campaign spokesman Todd Harris. "It does create some logistical nightmares."

And so we find ourselves squeezed onto the media risers at the back of the yawning, balloon-festooned airplane hangar, desperately seeking Arnold.

This day, he will hop across the state warning voters to prepare for "Desperate Davis" and his tricks, a swipe at the unpopular governor's notoriously slashing campaign ads.

Schwarzenegger's campaign swing will cross California's sprawling middle -- three remote airports in Santa Maria, Monterey and Redding. He will be taking his private jet, the leased one, not the one he owns. No press invited.

So we charter our own jet -- four reporters and two photographers from three news agencies. Schwarzenegger's is a sleek Gulfstream 4, nearly top of the line, with 13 seats and little winglets on the side to cut down on the drag. Ours is a 35-year-old, six-seat "flying brothel," so named because of the red velvet upholstery.

On the ground in Santa Maria, the traffic backs up along Foster Road and fans walk as far as a mile from the parking lot for a glimpse of the candidate, which is about all they are going to get.

"Arnold! Arnold!" the crowd chants, since that is how he is known these days, having risen, Elvis-like, to the rare status of first-name recognition.

A royal blue curtain billows and out he steps. His white short-sleeved dress shirt exposes forearms that bulge like two loaves of challah, his rectangular smile is no-nonsense, his hair is perfect. Photographs of a leather-clad Arnold straddling a motorcycle circulate through the crowd.

Little boys stand on their toes for a peek at the former Mr. Universe and silver-screen Terminator who wiped out threats to mankind with lots of firepower and few words.

"This is hand-to-hand combat!" he booms. "We are in the trenches. This is war.... " The fans go wild. He has harnessed the anger of people in this once-golden state, beleaguered by deficits and recession, joblessness and tripled car taxes, unchecked immigration and runaway workers' compensation costs.

To the faithful, he is the un-politician, the strongman who will take no guff from Sacramento or Washington, political establishments that have been busy sucking up California's tax dollars and giving precious little back.

"They will try to push me around, but I will push back!" the candidate roars. And he looks like he means it, chest bulging beneath his shirt, jaw muscles taut. They roar right back: "Ar-nold!"

Every Sunday morning before church, he gets on his motorcycle to cruise the streets of Los Angeles with his buddies. Now, he is offering California a ride -- a short, fast one back to the good life, the one he lives. They know so, because he tells them.

"People ask me why, why do you want to be governor of Cal-ee-forn-ya" he begins virtually every appearance, pronouncing the word the way the Spanish settlers intended. Then he ticks off the riches he found here. "A fantastic wife ... a beautiful family ... millions of dollars ... a movie career that will make millions of more dollars.... I go skiing all the time."

Why be governor? Because he wants to give something back, to "bring California back" to those days before busted budgets and blackouts and soaring energy costs and multibillion-dollar deficits.

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