Arnold Schwarzenegger began airing a statewide television ad Monday that accuses his rivals of taking millions of dollars in donations from "Indian casino tribes" -- an apparent departure from his pledges to forgo attacks on other candidates.
Schwarzenegger also started running a spot Monday that calls Gov. Gray Davis incompetent, blames him for high energy prices and hammers him for letting illegal immigrants get driver's licenses. It accuses Davis of fiscal mismanagement and criticizes him for tripling the state car tax.
Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Sean Walsh, denied that the candidate was going back on a promise. "This is not negative campaigning. This is simply stating the facts," he said.
The twin ads, however, reflect an abrupt tactical shift for Schwarzenegger and come after intense debate among his advisors. For weeks, the actor has been stuck in the polls, with roughly one in four voters backing him. TV ads to burnish his image appear not to have expanded his base of support. Schwarzenegger is paying for the ads in part with money he has collected from the oil, automobile, insurance, lumber and real estate industries, along with a host of other donors that lobby the governor's office on state business. He asserts that unlike the people giving money to his rivals, those donors are not "special interests."
One of Schwarzenegger's new ads opens with the image of a slot-machine dial as the candidate says: "Indian casino tribes play money politics in Sacramento: $120 million in the last five years." California should require tribes to "pay their fair share" of state taxes on casino profits, he says.
Without naming any of his opponents, he adds: "All the other major candidates take their money and pander to them. I don't play that game. Give me your vote, and I guarantee you things will change."
Last year, Schwarzenegger accepted $62,000 in Indian donations for a ballot measure he was promoting. He has declined money from the tribes for his gubernatorial campaign; tribes have backed two other contenders, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).
Walsh accused Bustamante and Davis of promising tribes state favors in return for campaign money, referring to appearances by Davis, Bustamante and McClintock last month at a meeting of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn.
Walsh said that whoever is governor must engage in direct negotiations with tribes on the scope of casino operations.
"What we do not want to do is give the impression negotiations and agreements are based on anything but merit," Walsh said.
Inside the Schwarzenegger campaign, the ad on Indian casinos was intensely debated. California voters have overwhelmingly backed ballot measures approving casinos on Indian reservations. Besides the possibility of a voter backlash, the move poses another danger: Tribes could retaliate by spending millions of dollars on television spots against Schwarzenegger.
"It's a major, major risk," one GOP strategist said. "The campaign either hits a home run with this or they get clobbered."
Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians, which runs a Temecula hotel-casino, called the ad an "act of desperation" that shows "Arnold is ignorant about tribal issues in California."
Indian tribal governments are the equivalent of state governments, and "governments don't tax other governments," he said. He also said that some tribes had volunteered to share revenue with the state.
Bustamante campaign chief Richie Ross, meanwhile, questioned whether Schwarzenegger himself had made promises to his donors.
"Mr. Schwarzenegger has taken huge amounts of money from people with serious development interests along the California coast," Ross said. "Has he pandered in order to get that money?"
Schwarzenegger's anti-Davis ad comes as several independent polls show a tightened race on whether to recall the governor.
The main pro-recall committee, Rescue California, had planned to spend $15 million on a campaign to remove the governor. But with the departure from the race of its major donor, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the committee is nearly broke. No other recall committee has paid for ads promoting the recall. Davis, however, has run television spots statewide, urging voters to keep him in office.
Davis backers have been delighted by the absence of a forceful pro-recall campaign, saying that has given life to their efforts and, lately, helped shift momentum in their direction. Davis spokesman Peter Ragone said Schwarzenegger's ads reflect the actor's fear of losing the election.
"First Arnold Schwarzenegger says he won't take special interest money, but now he is," Ragone said in a statement. "He promises not to talk about other candidates, and then launches false negative ads."
Times staff writers Joe Mathews and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.