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For Once, a Debate Viewers May Be Interested In

Schwarzenegger's role is likely to add unusual relevance to tonight's event, experts say.

September 24, 2003|Matea Gold and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

In the course of a typical election, a political debate like the one set for this evening at Cal State Sacramento would have little chance of altering the dynamics of the race. Few people tune in to such events, and unless a candidate commits a major gaffe, debates usually just solidify impressions voters already have, political analysts say.

"Academics call it 'expectancy theory,' " said Raymond Zeuschner, a professor of speech communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "It says that what you expect to see is what you will see."

But the 2003 gubernatorial recall election has been anything but typical. The high level of interest in this race, combined with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to participate only in this forum, has trained a larger-than-usual spotlight on the event and heightens the odds that it could affect voters' perception of the candidates, many experts say.

The 90-minute debate, the fifth forum involving most of the major candidates running in the Oct. 7 election, begins at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast statewide on multiple radio and television stations. It will feature Schwarzenegger, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo and independent Arianna Huffington.

The man they seek to replace, Gov. Gray Davis, last week took part in a separate forum organized by tonight's co-sponsors and was not invited to this event.

Underscoring the potential effect of the debate, two out of three likely voters say the event will play an important role in influencing their vote, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. More than 250 reporters are expected to cover the debate, which is co-sponsored by the university and the California Broadcasters Assn.

"Because there is all this focus and attention, the debate has taken on added significance," said Joseph Tuman, a professor of political communication at San Francisco State.

Although candidates regularly skirmish behind the scenes for debate advantage, the Sacramento debate -- and Schwarzenegger's refusal to engage his rivals any other time -- has blossomed into a campaign issue. Both Bustamante and McClintock have gone after the actor in recent weeks for participating only in tonight's forum -- which, they note, is the only one for which the questions were provided in advance.

By limiting himself to one debate, Schwarzenegger has increased the pressure to demonstrate agility and intelligence during the event, many said.

"He will really have to come off like he's not just reciting lines from his movies, that he can think on his feet," said Democratic political consultant Roy Behr, who is not involved in the recall election.

A mistake in a political debate does not usually translate into permanent, long-term damage for a campaign. But if Schwarzenegger stumbles in this forum -- for which he has had ample time to prepare -- he could raise doubts about his competence, said Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg.

"He's boosted expectations and painted himself into a corner with all his references to this as the 'Super Bowl' of debates," said Steinberg, who is neutral in the race.

Schwarzenegger said he is looking forward to the debate.

"We will have a great time," he said Tuesday at a campaign stop in Sacramento. "I think it will be an hour and a half of great energy."

But Schwarzenegger's task will be complicated by the pummeling he is likely to receive from both sides.

"I think it will be one of the most contentious debates that voters have ever seen," Behr said.

In particular, McClintock will have a statewide audience before which he can make his case for staying in the race. Republican leaders have put increasing pressure on the Republican state senator to bow out to avoid splitting the GOP vote, but so far he has shown no inclination to do so.

"For McClintock, it's a chance to show people driving the pro-recall race that he's the superior candidate, that Schwarzenegger was just a big puffery that the media and Hollywood wanted," said Davis pollster Paul Maslin.

Bustamante, meanwhile, will have a chance to go on the offensive after spending the last two days fielding questions about how his campaign has been raising money. On Tuesday, he began running a television commercial criticizing Schwar- zenegger for living on "Planet Hollywood."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman dismissed the actor's competition in the forum as "two gadflies and two career politicians."

"Arnold will be able to brush them off pretty effectively," he said. "They'll be like a bunch of small barking dogs trying to bite his ankle. None of them have his stature and presence."

After he was criticized for agreeing only to a debate in which the questions were given in advance, Schwarzenegger tried to counter by asking the sponsors to change the format. Bustamante and McClintock threatened to stage their own event unless the questions were yanked.

But the broadcasters association refused to budge, noting that the main portion of the debate will be devoted to allowing the candidates to quiz each other on their answers. That format could actually give the candidates more freedom to spar.

"Really, it's a pretty free-flowing format," said Garry South, a political advisor to Davis. "There are no time limits. The candidates can go after each other. It may make for some interesting theater."

In the end, some analysts said, the forum could benefit Davis, who may emerge more palatable when compared with the candidates jousting for his job.

"His absence could make the heart grow fonder," Steinberg said. "People may see him in a more positive light if everyone else is attacking each other."


Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.

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