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On Campaign's Final Day

Victor Basks in Voters' 'Gift of Trust'

October 08, 2003|Peter Nicholas, Jessica Garrison and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

Introduced by Jay Leno, flanked by his Kennedy relatives and addressing raucous Republicans in Ronald Reagan's favorite hotel, Arnold Schwarzenegger declared victory in the recall election Tuesday night, in a stranger-than-fiction montage that brought the new governor's various personas into one.

Leno, rather than praising Schwarzenegger, made a few jokes at his expense. "For the first time in his career, the critics are calling him an actor, ladies and gentlemen," he said, continuing on to his accent: "We have all been wrong. It is pronounced Ca-lee-for-nya."

The Kennedys, America's first family of Democrats, smiled, hugged and kissed their in-law, as he delivered a crippling blow to their party in what had been a stronghold.

And the Republicans crowded the ballroom at the Century Plaza on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City. Fire marshals had to shut the doors to keep people out. They cheered for everyone and everything, even the Kennedys and Schwarzenegger's call for bipartisanship.

"I came here with absolutely nothing," Schwarzenegger said, in a speech that emphasized, in word and backdrop, togetherness. "And California has given me absolutely everything.... California has given me the greatest gift of all. You have given me your trust."

As Schwarzenegger spoke of receiving a gracious phone call from Gov. Gray Davis, Leno pretended to dab a tear from his eye. After giving his speech, Schwarzenegger bent down to shake hands with VIP supporters arrayed in the front rows. He was briefly obscured by clouds of confetti and red, white and blue balloons that dropped from the ceiling. He smiled out to the crowd and gave a thumbs up. Beaming supporters gave him a thumbs-up in return. He did not stay to mingle.

"I'm like numb," said Jill Hay, a Schwarzenegger volunteer from Long Beach, after the winner's speech.

Crowds had begun arriving at the hotel in early afternoon, as word spread that exit polls showed a Schwarzenegger blowout. For many attendees, it was a familiar feeling in a familiar setting: Republicans toasted Reagan election-night victories at the same hotel for two decades.

By 7:30 p.m., valet parking at the Century Plaza was full. Hummers with "Arnold" bumper stickers gave up and pulled into the nearby St. Regis. As Republicans went by escalator to the warren of ballrooms in the basement, fire marshals closed access. Reporters screamed and yelled and pleaded for entry.

Schwarzenegger arrived at the hotel for his party about 9 p.m., his victory already assured. He had had a quiet day after voting ("I always look for the longest name," he said), spending time with his family and thanking supporters.

He watched televised returns from his hotel suite, surrounded by family and friends from show business and politics, a campaign spokesman said.

Downstairs, the state's leading Republicans asked for celebrity autographs (Gary Busey was there) and reveled in being muscled out of the political wilderness. Their party was rigidly segregated. VIPs were put in one room, where there was an open bar. Media representatives, who seemed to outnumber partygoers, were sent to another room, and campaign staff members to a third.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who bankrolled the recall signature-gathering drive, entered the room to cheers. He voiced delight at early returns and exit polls showing Schwarzenegger would succeed Davis as governor. Issa dismissed speculation that the recall victory had raised his political fortunes.

"There's only one star in the Republican Party and that's Arnold Schwarzenegger," Issa said.

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