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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Lesser-Known Names Seek to Change Course of Election

Their goal is to garner media attention for candidates beyond the main field. Experts say they could sway voters with a coherent message.

September 22, 2003|Allison Hoffman and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

When a group of eight gubernatorial candidates gathered for a bipartisan power breakfast two Saturdays ago at the ultra-hip Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, it wasn't the kind of summit most voters have come to expect: no staff. No campaigning. No fund-raising.

They were there to unify, they reminded one another. They swore to maintain their integrity as politicians. They agreed that, as candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis on the recall ballot, they were at the vanguard of a democratic revolution. One suggested that they all deserved a round of applause for their efforts. They clapped, earning the curious stare of an early-morning, bikini-clad sunbather.

The group might have at least expected to share a toast out on the rooftop. But the waitress was politely shooed away.

"I can't go over the $1,000 spending limit," apologized Jon Zellhoefer, a Republican from San Jose. "I'd have to file with the state if I did."

Six weeks into the recall campaign -- and with just over two weeks left to go, if the courts allow the election to proceed on Oct. 7 -- these are the realities of managing an earnest, though amateur, gubernatorial campaign.

With the emergence of three front-runners -- Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- most of the other people on the 135-candidate ballot have been reduced into an agglomeration of Web sites, photocopied fliers and red-white-and-blue buttons.

A few, including Arianna Huffington, the writer and television commentator, and Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate, are well-known enough to command platforms of their own.

Garrett Gruener, who made a fortune with the "Ask Jeeves" Web site, has begun to pour large amounts of his own money into his campaign Web site and advertisements on CNN.

As for the rest, they have held debates and auditioned for a game show -- and tonight about 80 of them will appear as audience guests on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" -- but for the most part they have provided the campaign with a backdrop of white noise.

Nonetheless, a core group of these "other" candidates refuses to give up on the belief that they can change the course of the election. And even now, with the date of the election uncertain, they continue to send mass e-mails, plan news conferences and discuss platforms.

The "candidates forum," as they have dubbed themselves, is a nebulous group with members of every recognized party except Peace and Freedom.

This is a group that prides itself on being ordinary. They are committed to openness and multi-partisan agreement -- even though they agree on almost nothing at their weekend gatherings, other than the conviction, however quixotic, that they have the power to influence the outcome of the recall.

The group first gathered on Labor Day weekend for a two-hour closed meeting aboard the Hornet, an aircraft carrier docked in Alameda. The group's chief objective was to garner media attention for candidates beyond the main field -- and to raise their individual electoral prospects. With a mere 4% of California's voters planning to support someone other than Bustamante, Schwarzenegger, McClintock, Huffington or Camejo, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, that appears to be a fantastic goal.

"Mathematically, they couldn't win," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State.

Regardless, when they emerged down the gangway of the ship for a group photo -- instead of "cheese," they said "Gray Davis" -- many were excitedly chattering about the founding fathers and citizen democracy.

"We're bordering on a revolt against politics as usual," said Marc Valdez, an air quality consultant from Sacramento who says he is running to "help Californians choose the lesser of 135 evils."

A week later, 43 candidates -- a mix of newcomers and people who had attended the Alameda meeting -- again expressed lofty goals when they convened at a Beverly Hills restaurant to craft a joint position statement.

"This group -- collectively -- has a lot of power," said George B. Schwartzman, an excitable San Diego businessman who is running as an independent. "We control 10, 15, 20% of the vote."

While O'Connor dismissed such claims, she conceded that the group could conceivably sway a small percentage of voters if it could unite behind a coherent message.

Agreement, however, was in short supply at the Beverly Hills meeting. The group spent the morning bickering over what principles might be equally acceptable to an anti-recall candidate committed to gay rights, an Ayn Rand objectivist and a social conservative who thinks taxpayers should be able to earmark their contributions.

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