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Refusal to Debate Is Part of Carefully Scripted Campaign

September 04, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger's refusal to participate in Wednesday's gubernatorial debate fits his pattern of shunning traditional campaign venues in favor of carefully scripted appearances he can control.

His advisors paint it as a strategic move that capitalizes on his star power rather than a decision to avoid situations that could expose him to risk. "He has the capacity to talk directly to voters and not have to filter his message," said Schwarzenegger's strategist, Mike Murphy.

"When he speaks, it goes live on cable news," said another advisor. "Talk radio goes directly, unfiltered, to the public.''

But the Walnut Creek debate Wednesday offered a prime forum to broadcast his views unfiltered. The only debate he has agreed to attend is the one sponsored by a broadcasters group that promised to give candidates the questions in advance.

With less than five weeks until the election -- and now just four days before voting by absentee ballot begins -- the Republican actor has subjected himself to far less give-and-take than his rivals. As a result, he has not been forced to offer many specifics on how he would run a state beset by financial crisis and political gridlock.

His star status allows him to command international media attention, and the actor has continued to rely on techniques more common in Hollywood than Sacramento.

"He jumps into the crowd, shakes a few hands, poses for pictures, and he's off to the next stop," said political scientist Larry Gerston, a San Jose State professor, "almost as if the publicity agent shouts, 'Cut!' "

Tuesday offered another example: The Schwarzenegger campaign invited four TV stations to the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica and then conducted round-robin interviews in a session that one participant described as a classic movie junket. Schwarzenegger shuttled between two meeting rooms with a white backdrop emblazoned with the campaign logo, allotting each reporter 10 minutes before moving on to the next.

KABC-TV Channel 7 political reporter John Gregory said Schwarzenegger opened the interview by praising ABC reporter John North, much as he had lauded the hosts on the "John & Ken" radio show earlier in the day. "He's trying to soften up the reporters. He's used to schmoozing people up -- it's a big part of it, the entertainment culture in Hollywood," Gregory said.

In public appearances, Schwarzenegger has used his star power to draw enormous TV coverage at events staged to project favorable images of him surrounded by children, seasoned policy advisors or throngs of adoring fans.

But in the four weeks since he launched his campaign, he has turned down all interview requests from print journalists who cover state government. Instead, over the last 10 days he has taken questions mainly from radio talk-show hosts, some of whom openly back his campaign.

"I hope all conservatives get aboard the forthcoming Schwarzenegger bandwagon," syndicated radio host Michael Medved told listeners Tuesday as he introduced the candidate.

Schwarzenegger's elusiveness has opened him to a steady stream of criticism from his rivals.

"I believe he runs the risk of voters dismissing him as a lightweight if he continues to duck major opportunities to face the voters and lay out his platform," said state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, Schwarzenegger's chief Republican rival.

David Doak, chief campaign media advisor to Gov. Gray Davis, said Schwarzenegger's team seemed to fear that the untested candidate would stumble in unscripted events. But by avoiding them, Doak said, he could lead voters to conclude that he is "not brave enough to answer questions" and -- more importantly -- that he is unqualified to be governor.

"Is he up to it? Can he do it? Does he understand government well enough?" Doak asked rhetorically.

Schwarzenegger strategist Murphy chalked up the second-guessing to "sour grapes among people whose campaigns are not working too well."

"I don't think the voters of California who are so enthusiastic about Arnold want him to bore them to death with 900-page policy plans," Murphy said. "They've gotten that from the guys who have failed in Sacramento."

He recalled that Schwarzenegger took questions for more than 40 minutes at a Los Angeles news conference two weeks ago. He also said the candidate would speak more to reporters in the closing weeks of his campaign.

"He wants to talk about what he wants to talk about, and what he knows about," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political science professor at USC. "Frankly, he's used to having his way, which -- with the entertainment press -- he does."

By Hollywood standards, Schwarzenegger has been relatively candid with entertainment reporters for years, but candidates have less control of their coverage than celebrities do, said Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart.

"I don't think he's gotten his arms around it yet," Bart said. "We may see him emerge from the cocoon yet."

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