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Pre-Debate Buzz Centers on Who Won't Be There

Organizers drop plans to leave an empty chair for Schwarzenegger. Candidates trailing in the polls hope to break away from the pack.

September 03, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Five of 135 candidates in the recall race will take the stage at a Bay Area playhouse this afternoon for the first debate of the harried election, but much of the focus Tuesday centered on Arnold Schwarzenegger and his decision to skip the event.

Democrats condemned the movie star, saying he was being disrespectful to voters, and some Republicans chimed in as well.

At least two other debates are scheduled. Schwarzenegger has agreed to participate in only one, on Sept 17 in Sacramento. In that session -- unlike the others -- the candidates will get the questions in advance.

The decision to skip today's forum entails some risk, as the debate could drive momentum and establish the campaign's themes for days to come.

"The way elections are conducted these days, there are few opportunities when people really tune in for a brief time to see what's happening," said Thomas Hollihan, a professor and associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. "Debates tend to be one of those moments."

The candidates who were asked to participate qualified by receiving at least 4% support in either the most recent Field Poll or the last statewide vote. Each of the participants comes to the forum with a different key objective.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is juggling a two-part campaign theme -- no on the recall, yes on his candidacy -- hoped to prove himself ready should Gov. Gray Davis be ousted. "I want people to see he's the real deal," said Richie Ross, Bustamante's campaign strategist. "There's no training wheels on this bike."

State Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks and businessman Peter V. Ueberroth, two of Schwarzenegger's GOP rivals, hoped to use the added attention to introduce themselves to voters still getting to know the field of contestants, with less than five weeks left until the Oct. 7 vote.

Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo Jr. were also aiming to attract increased notice to their campaigns, which so far have drawn little support in opinion surveys.

During the first 30 minutes of the two-hour session, Davis will answer questions from a moderator, a panel of reporters and a handful of people chosen by the debate organizers. He will then exit the stage. The candidates to replace him will then participate in a 90-minute forum that will have a similar format.

Looking ahead to Thursday morning, David Doak, the governor's image advisor, said the campaign hopes today's questioners "take the toughest crack at him they can."

"The best thing we can wake up to is Gray Davis going in for 30 minutes and facing the toughest questions that people have to ask, even experience some anger from the audience.... At the same time, we hope that will be a great contrast to the circus that may take place afterward."

In an interview Tuesday with Tom Brokaw, aired on the NBC Nightly News, Davis previewed several themes he is expected to discuss today, calling the recall "a very humbling experience" but adding that Californians "want me to fight for their future."

Asked about the state's economic problems, Davis noted that California is part of the overall national economy. "I'm proud that since I've become governor, we have 850,000 more jobs than when I first took office," he said. "And America, since the president took office, we've lost 3 million jobs. Some of those were lost in our state."

The debate, which is sponsored by the Contra Costa Times and KTVU-TV, will take place in the glass-sheathed performing arts center in the affluent East Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek. It will be carried on live radio and television at 4 p.m. throughout the state, including KTLA-TV (Channel 5) in Los Angeles, and will be broadcast nationwide on the C-SPAN cable network.

Schwarzenegger's decision to stay away reflects a course he has pursued throughout his recall run. The actor and first-time candidate has limited his exposure to questions on most substantive issues and has favored controlled settings that allow him to be seen in public while minimizing the opportunities for give-and-take -- or potentially embarrassing gaffes.

The strategy carries it own peril, however, giving opponents the opportunity to raise questions about Schwarzenegger's preparedness for office, his familiarity with state matters and his willingness to go through the rigors that other, less-celebrated candidates are forced to endure.

"I think it hurts him in the sense that, if you're going to be governor and you have no political experience ... you've got to at some time convince voters that you're capable," said Joe Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State University and an expert on debates.

"Even if you're running as the outsider, people need to visualize you in that job," he said.

Organizers of the debate had planned to have an empty chair on the stage this afternoon, underscoring Schwarzenegger's refusal to attend, but changed their minds after his aides strenuously objected.

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