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Huffington Struggles to Get Word Out

After the initial media attention dies down, she's left to plug away on the campaign trail.

September 03, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Surrounded by a horde of reporters scribbling down her every word, Arianna Huffington can't resist giving them a few pointers.

"It's time that the media started doing their job," she scolded. Then she ticked off a list of questions she urged journalists to ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, a rival candidate for governor.

A newspaper columnist and a fixture on cable news shows, Huffington sometimes seems to forget that she has crossed the line between merely observing politicians and being one.

When she launched her campaign in August, Huffington cast herself as a populist foil to Schwarzenegger. She cut short a vacation in Ireland with former New Yorker editor Tina Brown and raced back to California, cheered on by actor Warren Beatty and Bay Area liberals.

Her staff started churning out pink T-shirts promoting the recall contest as "Hybrid vs. Hummer," playing off her advocacy of environmental causes and Schwarzenegger's fondness for the giant SUVs. She revived the theme in a Web ad.

But after the initial gust of media attention died down, Huffington was left to plod the campaign trail like any other would-be governor. Her campaign has been mired far behind the leading candidates in opinion polls, and her odds of winning -- always a long shot -- have appeared to dwindle.

She clearly knows how to seize a media moment -- like the time she barged onto the scene as Schwarzenegger filed papers to enter the race, knocking over a bank of microphones in her rush to get beside the actor as cameras clicked.

But as the race barrels ahead toward the Oct. 7 election, Huffington is spending less time on CNN and MSNBC and more at homeless shelters and day-care centers. A native of Athens, she dropped by a Greek festival in Los Angeles.

She has also stumbled a few times as the media turned toward her with the same scrutiny that she applies to others.

At times, the results have seemed irresistibly ironic. A tireless critic of corporate tax loopholes, Huffington wound up defending her own tax returns. Then her campaign manager quit after word leaked out that he had worked as a lobbyist for tobacco companies and other corporate interests.

As if that weren't enough, several of Huffington's early TV appearances were bumped by coverage of the East Coast blackout.

She still makes time to bash greedy corporate chieftains and Bush Republicans, a staple of much of her recent writing, and she'll get her fair share of exposure tonight, when she participates in the first debate of the recall campaign.

But while she bills herself as an unconventional candidate unswayed by party politics, Huffington is increasingly trying to position herself in a rather conventional role: that of a woman and a mother.

"I'm somebody who can really govern differently," she said last week at a shelter for women and children in Santa Barbara. "The priorities I want to bring to state government are the priorities of a woman and a mother."

"What do we want for our children? We want good schools. We want affordable health care and we want affordable housing. And yet, these are not the priorities of state government. Our priorities right now seem to be building jails and giving raises to prison guards while firing teachers."

Not quite a decade ago, Huffington was a blunt-spoken Gingrich Republican. Now, she refers to the period as "my Republican interregnum," a line guaranteed to get a laugh out of the liberal audiences she now courts.

She used to believe that "the private sector would step up to the plate" to help the poor, she says. Now she thinks that government aid and regulation are necessary.

In recent years, she led a satiric campaign criticizing the poor fuel efficiency of SUVs, linking driving one to supporting international terrorism.

In fact, she may have been the only gubernatorial candidate who felt compelled to issue a statement after vandals trashed several Hummer dealerships.

"I strongly oppose it," she said of the attacks. "I have nothing against SUV owners; my problem is with Detroit. The automakers have the technology to make more fuel-efficient SUVs, and that is what consumers deserve."

Her political evolution has won her a devoted fan base of Hollywood activists, environmentalists and other liberals. But in a telling example of the difficulty she faces as a candidate, not all of them plan to vote for her.

"I think she's fantastic. Her intellectual curiosity and rigor is one of her strongest assets," said Michael Feinstein, a Santa Monica councilman and Green Party member.

But Feinstein said he plans to vote for Green Party candidate Peter Camejo in order to help strengthen third-party forces in California.

Other observers regard Huffington as little more than an opportunist whose only creed is Arianna Huffington herself.

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