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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Hybrid vs. Hummer Ad Gains Speed

A strategist says a Web animation, in which Huffington races Schwarzenegger, sends the message that she thinks differently.

September 08, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

A Jesse Ventura action figure battled another plastic figurine named "Special Interest Man" in a now-celebrated 1998 television ad. The Jesse doll growled, "I don't want your stupid money!" And a governor was born.

Now candidate Arianna Huffington is flirting in the California recall campaign with the same sort of subversive advertising that helped put the flamboyant one-time pro wrestler in the Minnesota governor's seat.

Huffington's two-minute Internet "flash film," released this week, pits her against actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the animated short, Huffington and her clean-fuel car race Schwarzenegger and his smoke-belching, oversized Hummer. A cartoonish, bubble-eyed Arnoldfigure spouts platitudes in a thick Austrian accent, growls at his fuel-gobbling vehicle and plows through a green nature preserve.

Critics say the ad, which has been e-mailed to about 100,000 voters so far, is sophomoric and won't help the independent Huffington break out of her low standing in the polls. But proponents are laughing out loud. They say the over-the-top caricature of Schwarzenegger underscores a central Huffington theme -- that the author and television commentator will thumb her nose at traditional politicians.

It's not quite clear who first suggested that the candidates' cars might make a tidy symbol for the Huffington campaign. It might have been actor Warren Beatty, said one Huffington spokesman.

In any event, the candidate's staff decided that "Hybrid vs. Hummer" would make catchy T-shirts and demonstrate their candidate's support for alternative fuels. Then someone proposed broadcasting the message via the Internet, where Huffington has courted voters aggressively.

Enter Tate Hausman, 26, a Web strategist for the campaign, and Louis Fox, 29, a friend of Hausman since their days growing up together in Woodstock, N.Y. Fox brought at least two talents to the endeavor -- he had been mimicking Schwarzenegger since grade school and he is the co-founder of Free Range Graphics, a public relations and advertising firm that touts liberal causes.

Hausman went to Fox's loft in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood one evening and, primed with several glasses of wine, the two began spitting out concepts and dialogue in Arnold-speak. Sometime after midnight they had their script -- Schwarzenegger in his giant yellow Hummer and Huffington in her modest red hybrid vehicle lined up for a race. Although the actor leads the race early on, Huffington passes him when he repeatedly must stop to refuel.

The Schwarzenegger character becomes agitated, repeatedly roaring: "Stupid Hummaaaaaah!" (That's "Hummer" with a pronounced Austrian inflection.)

Along the way, the caricatured Schwarzenegger gets help from moneybag-toting "special interests" and President Bush, who is depicted as a shill for the oil industry.

The spot also plays off a repeated critique of Schwarzenegger -- that he speaks only vaguely on the issues -- by poking fun at his answer to a question about the state's Family Leave Act: "I'm very much for families," says cartoon Arnold. "I'm very much for children and children's issues and all that stuff." Soon, Schwarzenegger's animated vehicle plows over a family.

Predictably Schwarzenegger's campaign is not enamored of the two buddies' first production.

"It's funny, although not quite as funny as the fact Arianna thinks she should be governor," said Todd Harris, a Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman. "Arianna paid about $700 in taxes last year, which is apparently about $699 more than she spent to create this ad."

Harris confirmed that Schwarzenegger still owns his Hummer and believes "it's a free country and people can buy and use whatever kind of car they choose to buy and can afford."

Harris added, however, that Schwarzenegger has "raised the issue" with General Motors of finding a way to make a less-polluting version of its super-sized sport utility vehicle. The actor suggested the refinements before the Huffington ad, Harris said, and "it's being explored."

Consultants not involved in the campaign are debating whether the Hummer ad will have any real effect.

Harvey Englander, a consultant who frequently represents Republicans, said the short film "is almost like high school."

"I think some people will get a laugh out of it and some people who are already for her will say how smart and creative she is," Englander said, "but I don't think someone who sees it is going to vote for her because of it."

Campaign strategist Richard Schlackman of San Francisco called the spot "cute," if a "little too strident."

He said the more important question is how many people will see it. "Content is not as important sometimes as reach," Schlackman said. "You need to get to a whole lot of people to have an impact."

Huffington's campaign said that, by late last week, they believed about 100,000 people had seen the short film. Many received it as an attachment to an e-mail, while others have clicked on the spot on Huffington's Web site

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