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After a Shaky Opening, a Candidate Is Born

The Schwarzenegger campaign was in disarray in early August, but a team of savvy political pros helped him hit his stride.

October 09, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Two days after he announced he was running for governor, a tired Arnold Schwarzenegger arose before dawn to be interviewed by satellite on three TV network morning shows. The appearances did not go well.

Hosts pressed Schwarzenegger for specifics, but he offered little but a desire to help business. On NBC's "Today" show, his earpiece failed, making it appear as if he was dodging hard questions. By the time he arrived in Bellflower just before noon for the kickoff of the Inner City Games, the press pack that had marveled at his stunning announcement on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" two nights earlier was at full growl.

Late that afternoon, in the offices of Schwarzenegger's production company on Main Street in Santa Monica, the candidate's wife, Maria Shriver, and his small cadre of political aides vented their frustration, directing some at George Gorton, the campaign manager.

According to campaign documents and dozens of interviews with insiders, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements they were required to sign, the stretch of days beginning that Friday, Aug. 8, marked the low ebb in Schwarzenegger's effort to become California's leader.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign coverage -- An article in Thursday's Section A quoted Mark Bogetich, an Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign aide, as saying "every day was like a week, and every week was like a month." The quotation was accurate, but it directly followed a sentence about Schwarzenegger declining in polls conducted by his campaign in August. That juxtaposition may have implied Bogetich was commenting on the polls. He was not. His comment was directed only at the compressed schedule of the campaign.

Schwarzenegger had kept his decision to enter the race a surprise even to his political strategists. Offstage at the "Tonight Show," Gorton had stood with a press release in his pocket declaring that Schwarzenegger would not get in the race.

The surprise generated a huge media reaction, but it also got his campaign off to a flat-footed start.

The campaign had no office, no phones, no letterhead, almost no working computers. The candidate also had few positions on issues. His campaign events were limited to content-free stops at the county registrar-recorder's office to pick up election papers and visits to his after-school programs.

But it had one overriding asset -- the multimillionaire movie star at its heart whose campaign was already a worldwide sensation.

Saturday, the day after his poor television showing, Schwarzenegger talked a reluctant Bob White, the former chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson, into running his campaign. Schwarzenegger had been chatting with White about politics for years, conversations that often involved the nature of government finance.

To make way for White, Schwarzenegger eased Gorton, a longtime Republican operative who had moved his family from San Diego to Los Angeles the previous year to help the candidate, into a more limited role as an advisor.

White immediately began hiring, tripling the staff in about a week, and he created a structure, with daily staff meetings at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The changes steadied the campaign but did not stop its woes. Campaign strategists largely kept Schwarzenegger under wraps, relying on proxies who hurt as much as they helped.

"The people around Arnold seemed to be star-struck at the beginning of the campaign," said Dan Schnur, who ran Peter Ueberroth's campaign and shares a Sacramento political consulting firm with Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman. "They were letting him campaign like a movie star."

The campaign trumpeted billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett as an economic advisor, only to see him suggest in the Wall Street Journal that California's property taxes were too low. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which had been planning to endorse Schwarzenegger, pulled back, according to a campaign official.

Wilson, the former governor, gave a television interview in which he announced that Schwarzenegger had supported Proposition 187, the initiative to deny public services to illegal immigrants which had been the centerpiece of Wilson's own reelection bid in 1994. The initiative, and Wilson, remain highly controversial among Latino voters.

When Schwarzenegger finally did make a public appearance, on a street in Huntington Beach, it almost became a disaster. The candidate was jostled by an unruly crowd of beachgoers, and reporters were nearly trampled. Local police and the campaign ended up blaming each other for the lack of crowd control.

For future events, Pat Clarey, the campaign's scheduler and a key lieutenant to White, found the central question for prospective venues became: "How many bicycle racks do you have?" The metal racks were used to provide a barrier over which the candidate could shake hands without being trampled by eager fans.

Clarey and the advance team also had to use more private facilities and ticket events, to better control the rock-star reception for the candidate.

Two weeks in, the campaign's polls were showing a decline from the day of his announcement. And time in the short race was running out. "Every day was like a week, and every week was like a month," said Mark Bogetich, who did opposition research for Schwarzenegger.

Needed: a Theme

The campaign lacked both a compelling theme and a field general. Over the middle two weeks of August, both problems would be addressed.

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