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Issues Take a Back Seat on This Bus Tour

October 06, 2003|GEORGE SKELTON

Sacramento — The campaign trail isn't what it used to be. Especially a trail trod by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It used to be -- a few governors ago -- that political reporters and campaign advisors would spar over issues. Like taxes, spending, education, the environment.

Just what does candidate Schwarzenegger mean by his promise to freeze spending? To restructure debt?

There's no such sparring these days, not in a recall revolt that's not only historic but often histrionic and hysteric.

Especially not with this substance-light front-runner.

First, some background: The campaign trail has all but disappeared in California. Back in Gov. Ronald Reagan's day, reporters flew with the candidate on his airplane and traveled with him on a bus.

Later, candidates stopped chartering planes and flew in small jets donated by special interests. The buses became local vans. Gov. Gray Davis, until he faced the recall noose, campaigned very little at all. Mostly, he just raised money and staged photo-ops designed for TV. But TV really wasn't interested, and who could blame it.

Schwarzenegger has spent less time on the campaign trail than in broadcast studios doing happy-talk interviews. But last Thursday he embarked on an old-fashioned campaign tour and -- for the first time -- arranged for reporters to troop along. It was presidential in scope and size -- six buses, including four for the news media. Filled with roughly 200 journalists. Unheard of for a governor's race.

I caught up with the caravan Saturday in Fresno, planning to write about taxes and spending. After all, that's supposedly at the heart of this recall -- Davis' "mishandling" of the people's money.

Schwarzenegger has been promising -- as he did at every stop all weekend -- not to raise taxes. Nor to cut education.

And there's one thing you can depend on: If he's elected governor, Schwarzenegger will do one of the two -- hike taxes or cut schools -- and very likely both, barring an economic miracle.

The economy, in fact, is improving. State revenues rose $500 million above projections in the first quarter of the fiscal year. And the biggest quarters for tax receipts are the second and third. If this trend continues, the state could wind up $4 billion better off than expected at the end of the fiscal year. But it wouldn't be nearly enough.

That's because Schwarzenegger also has vowed to ax the "outrageous" car tax increase, an action that would eat up all the windfall $4 billion. He could recoup by stiffing local governments, which get all the car tax receipts, mostly for police and fire services. But this would create a firestorm in the grass roots.

Even with the car tax hike, the state was projected to end the next fiscal year $8 billion in debt. Now pour on another $2 billion in red ink because of a court decision that says the state cannot borrow to make pension contributions, as it had planned.

Schwarzenegger talks, in many respects, like a bleeding-heart liberal. He's a softie on educating and caring for kids. Well, that's where most of the state's money goes. In fact, 77% of the state's $71-billion general fund flows out to schools and local governments.

The actor says he's going to audit books and find waste. Fine. Maybe he'll save $100 million.

Then he'll proclaim -- in the time-honored "shock, shock" tradition of all governors -- that Sacramento is in a bigger fiscal sump than he ever dreamed. He'll cut, but temporary tax hikes also are regretfully needed.

Republican legislators will wait until they're safely renominated in the March primary. Then they'll join in the tax-raising, declaring that Gov. Schwarzenegger can be trusted -- unlike the dastard Davis -- to spend taxes wisely.

But it was useless to pursue such policy questions on this campaign tour. The barnstorming was old-fashioned, but the issues were not: Hitler admiration and women-groping.

Reporters couldn't escape the sleaze because the Schwarzenegger camp wouldn't let them. A spokesman loudly denounced The Times all day for "yellow journalism" because it has been reporting women's accusations against the candidate. Aides attempted to link the paper to Davis' "puke politics."

The campaign strategy was to spin radio and wire service reporters into leading their daylong reports with anti-Times and anti-Davis attacks, submerging the women's charges. It also was aimed at discrediting the messenger and hopefully inoculating the candidate against further allegations. And it was about playing to the Republican base, the social conservatives who might not ordinarily accept such behavior by a wannabe governor.

Meanwhile, a woman saying she was from Mexico plopped into a Modesto rally demanding to see Schwarzenegger so he could "apologize." For what? She never said. Some reporters chased the woman until a campaign aide whisked her away.

At a Pleasanton rally, women wearing T-shirts declaring "Arnold, hands off California" yelled at the candidate during his speech and, in turn, were targeted with loud obscenities by middle-aged men.

In a new sound bite, Schwarzenegger kept telling crowds: "I'm going to go up there and kick some serious butt."

It was a campaign trail reflective of the recall itself: angry, circus-like

and light on serious substance.

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