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The Race Is On -- to Spin and Analyze

Early consensus has McClintock gaining and Schwarzenegger a loser for not taking part in the debate. But impressions are still being formed.

September 05, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg and Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writers

In nature, an echo grows fainter with time.

In politics, as the candidates in California's recall election are finding, it can just keep getting louder.

And so, in the aftermath of the first debate among major candidates in the recall election, the spinmeisters and pundits went to work Thursday to condense and reshape the various messages that emerged during the wide-ranging, surprisingly substantive discussion the night before.

The early consensus appeared to be that state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) gained the most from the debate and that fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who didn't participate -- was the biggest loser. But the real effect, analysts said, may not be apparent for days, as ever-shorter sound bites are replayed on television and radio, and voters, most of whom did not see the debate in its entirety, absorb and analyze the Cliff's Notes version.

"The real effect of the debate will be borne out after the third or fourth day," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "The echo of poll results, the clips playing on TV, the pundits talking -- the secondhand perceptions form, and a conventional wisdom sets in about who won and who lost."

Viewership for the debate, which was televised statewide, was high by the standards of such events, especially in the state's two biggest media markets, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. Overnight Nielsen ratings showed that a healthy 11% of all TV viewers in Los Angeles -- more than 700,000 people -- were watching the debate by its final half-hour, and an even larger 18% in the Bay Area. Those figures are particularly significant, considering that the debate was broadcast live on only one station in each market.

Still, those viewers represent a fairly small minority of all voters. Most viewers learned about the debate from newscasts or talk shows after the fact. By then, a comprehensive discourse that ranged over most of the biggest issues facing the state had been reduced to a few simple, snappy statements.

For instance, Gov. Gray Davis, who appeared alone for half an hour before the debate among candidates vying to replace him, answered questions at length about the energy crisis, his self-identification as a progressive, his opposition to Proposition 54 (the initiative on the collection of racial data) and other matters. What emerged, in the abridged version that replayed over and over on TV and radio, was a single comment about the voters who will decide whether to recall him:

"I have their message. I know they are angry. This has been a humbling experience," Davis said.

And so it went with the candidates to replace him, should the recall effort succeed.

TV producers zeroed in on McClintock saying: "I am the one candidate who has taken the no-tax pledge." Green Party candidate Peter Camejo endlessly repeated: "I'm for a fair tax, which is what the wealthiest people in California should be paying."

Former Olympics organizer Peter V. Ueberroth -- who, by consensus and his own admission, didn't sparkle in the debate -- was quoted repeating some variation of his core theme: The state needs more jobs and less spending.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and independent Arianna Huffington were inevitably paired -- Bustamante defending his acceptance of a $2-million campaign contribution from a Native American tribe, and Huffington jumping all over him for it.

"It is nothing but legalized bribery. You have made a mockery of campaign finance laws by using a ludicrous loophole to get that money into your campaign," Huffington told the lieutenant governor.

"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante shot back.

National coverage of the debate was blunted somewhat by the gathering of Democratic presidential hopefuls in Albuquerque, N.M., for a debate of their own.

Still, the California debate, along with now-famous images of Schwarzenegger getting hit by an egg in Long Beach, made the rounds on both local and national newscasts Wednesday night and Thursday.

Among pundits, there seemed to be nearly universal agreement that McClintock was the biggest winner.

"Ideologically, I disagree with Tom McClintock on almost everything, but I found him very impressive," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of law at USC and a frequent commentator on just about everything.

McClintock "definitely firmed up his base," said Tony Quinn, who analyzes campaigns for the nonpartisan California Target Book election guide. "He was very conservative and articulate and knowledgeable and didn't grow horns in the middle of the debate."

Most analysts said Ueberroth, who seemed hesitant and noncommittal, came off the worst. "Ueberroth's passivity makes him a nonviable candidate," said Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for Greenlining Institute, which represents the interests of racial minorities.

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