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Ueberroth Waits as the Campaign Clock Ticks

September 06, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

As a Republican running for governor in the shadow of Arnold Schwarzenegger, former sports czar Peter V. Ueberroth was handed a golden opportunity this week: a televised debate without his main rival, and a chance to make the case that California needs a troubleshooter like himself to resolve its financial crisis.

Instead of seizing the moment, though, Ueberroth came across as listless and uninterested, according to analysts. The event left some who had welcomed his entry into the race wondering whether it's the Ueberroth campaign that needs a troubleshooter.

Ueberroth's strategy all along has been to wait in the wings for the front-runners to stumble and then to emerge as the choice of centrist voters. He has a campaign treasury of about $3 million and a plan to spend as much as $10.6 million. At the proper time, his advisors have said, he'll unleash a statewide barrage of television advertising.

But with just a month until the Oct. 7 recall vote, and absentee voting beginning Monday, Ueberroth has yet to become a force. His ad budget remains largely unspent, and TV commercials have been filmed but not yet aired.

This week's debate, in which Ueberroth's performance received generally poor reviews, underlined the concern that the candidate has been unable to convert the public's generally favorable impression of him into a significant political base.

"Peter Ueberroth was a wild card and had a lot of potential and, as the race has gone on, he has started to lose some of that potential," said Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of social psychology at UC Santa Cruz.

Ueberroth entered the race as "an outsider, a high-ability technical person who can solve problems and get things done," Pratkanis said. "Since then, there hasn't been much building on that image."

Ueberroth's supporters remain committed to his cause and optimistic about his chances. But even among his fans, there is an acknowledgment that he has been slow to connect with voters.

Nancy Farrand of Laguna Beach, who donated $5,000 and sent letters to 200 acquaintances on Ueberroth's behalf, said his subdued performance in the debate was within character.

"I think, for Pete, he did very well," Farrand said. "I know where he's coming from and I know he's right. But I think that might have been a turnoff for people."

Ueberroth's campaign insists that the game plan is on schedule and that they have plenty of time to build momentum to gain the 25% to 30% of the vote Ueberroth believes it will take to win.

"This is the time," campaign manager Dan Schnur said Friday night. "Tomorrow Californians will see a major jobs initiative from Peter, and next week they'll see our first [television] ads."

Schnur said the heart of the campaign launch had been delayed by the protracted media attention to Schwarzenegger.

"The Schwarzenegger supernova has burned a little longer than most people anticipated, but the nature of the media frenzy has changed as well," Schnur said. "It is settling. This [election] is receiving more media attention than anything we've seen in California history. In such an intense environment, four weeks is a lifetime and a half."

Key to the Ueberroth strategy is patience.

"Pretty soon people are going to start getting serious and they're going to look for a leader," Ueberroth said in a CNN interview earlier this week. "Then the polls will show that Pete Ueberroth is making a run for this campaign and this governorship."

Among Republican candidates, Ueberroth has run a distant third in the polls behind Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).

While McClintock has directed his message to the party's conservative wing, Ueberroth has targeted the same moderate voters being courted by Schwarzenegger. And Ueberroth has called himself a Republican running as an independent, suggesting he also hopes to draw votes from Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat in the race.

Ueberroth rose to public attention in the 1980s, leading the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to record profits, and then overseeing a financial turnaround in Major League Baseball as commissioner.

The common thread through his successes has been an aggressive, take-charge attitude and a knack for drawing together teams of people to resolve single-issue problems.

Ueberroth's campaign has been built around that image: the crisis-management candidate who will not speak ill of other candidates, and will emerge as a consensus moderate when excitement over Schwarzenegger fades and the other candidates resort to negative tactics.

Campaign manager Schnur likens the approach to a bar-fight scene in an old Steve McQueen movie, when McQueen finishes a drink and walks out of the seedy gin mill as a drunken melee rages around him.

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