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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Schwarzenegger Accuses Davis of Flip-Flopping

At a Republican forum, the candidate accuses the governor of changing positions to win more votes.

September 13, 2003|Michael Finnegan and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday accused Gov. Gray Davis of reversing his position on granting illegal immigrants driver's licenses to curry favor with voters.

"He makes his decisions based just on that to get reelected," Schwarzenegger told about 250 invited guests assembled at a downtown hotel for the second of his "Ask Arnold" forums. "In the meantime, the people will suffer."

Schwarzenegger said that, if elected, he would immediately work to overturn the new law, which was recently signed by Davis.

"It is absolutely disastrous to give driver's licenses to anyone without background checks because this is ... a very important document," he said. "We are really compromising our security here."

The actor said he would urge the Democrat-controlled Legislature to reconsider the measure. If that failed, he said he would support an initiative to repeal it. State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) already has backed a campaign to put such a measure on the March ballot.

A Davis spokesman cited law enforcement support for the driver's license measure and accused Schwarzenegger of using the issue to appeal to conservative voters.

Peter Ragone, communications director for the Davis campaign, said he doubted that LAPD Chief William Bratton would support a "politically motivated" bill. "It's sad that Arnold is so desperate that he's trying to run to the right of Tom McClintock," Ragone said.

Schwarzenegger, who has appeared in tightly controlled settings on the campaign trail, fielded friendly questions in San Diego from an audience culled from a local Republican club and campaign supporters for about 45 minutes.

Rivals have accused the neophyte candidate of inexperience. On Friday, Schwarzenegger addressed that criticism, saying that he is eager to learn.

"This governor's race -- my heart is in it," he said. "I know it's difficult. I know I'm not the smartest guy in the world. I know there are a lot of issues I don't know about."

Schwarzenegger agreed with one questioner who asked if McClintock's candidacy was splitting the Republican vote.

"Mathematically speaking, you are absolutely correct," he said. "It's common sense that if you divide a number by two, you have a problem."

He said he would not ask McClintock to step aside, calling that "presumptuous," but he said he would attempt to rally Republicans to his side during his visit to the state GOP convention in Los Angeles today.

"What is important to me is that I unite the Republican Party and have them unite behind my message," Schwarzenegger said.

Republican officials who had assembled for the convention said there is growing consternation about having two prominent candidates in the race. In recent days, McClintock has come under increasing pressure to bow out. He has insisted that he will not.

While the party's bylaws do not permit a formal endorsement by the state party, some GOP leaders said the executive board could skirt that rule.

"My gut feeling is, we will unite behind one candidate, because if we don't, we will look wishy-washy," said Jane Parsons, chairwoman of the Fresno County Republican Party. "The voters are looking to us to take some leadership. The party has to unify behind one person or we will lose."

Jonathan Buettner, chairman of the Merced County Republican Party, said Republicans were having trouble recruiting volunteers for the campaign because they did not know which candidate they would be working for.

"I think it's really up to the candidates to make a decision," Buettner said. "And I think they will do the right thing and not be selfish and unite for the sake of the party."

Meanwhile, Davis said Friday that he believes public sentiment is turning in his favor as he makes his case for Californians to keep him in office. He credited a series of town hall meetings he has held throughout the state.

"I think that is helping us turn the tide," Davis said during an afternoon news conference outside Los Angeles City Hall. "I believe the momentum is now on our side."

A Los Angeles Times poll this week showed that voters are evenly divided about the recall and that the governor's disapproval ratings have gone down.

"I believe the more Californians learn about the recall, the more they turn against it," he said.

Davis said he expects to get more of a boost in coming days as former President Clinton and other top Democratic officials hit the campaign trail with him.

Clinton "is enormously popular and well-respected in our state," Davis said. "As I have said before, I think every Californian would trade the Clinton economy for the Bush economy in a heartbeat."

Times staff writers Miguel Bustillo and Gregg Jones contributed to this report.

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