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Commentary | ON THE RECALL Peter H. King

Let the Stampede Resume

September 24, 2003|Peter H. King | Peter H. King's column will run twice weekly through the recall election.

And so, once again, they're off -- the governor and the thundering herd of would-be governors -- the die-hard conservative, the action-movie idol, the lieutenant governor for Indian gaming, the Jay Leno 90, the professor, Mary Ann....

With its reversal of a reversal, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court on Tuesday reestablished Oct. 7 as election day and, in effect, turned this unseemly stampede of political ambition down the backstretch. It promises to be a finish like no other in California politics.

"What you will see now," said Ken Khachigian, the veteran Republican consultant whose own horse, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, balked at the starting gate, "is six weeks of campaigning compressed into two weeks."

For the next 13 days, Californians will be under siege. Turn on the tube and there will be Arnold Schwarzenegger, grinning. Open the paper and there will be a picture of Gray Davis, signing yet another bill, or of Cruz Bustamante visiting yet another reservation. Flip on the radio and there will be Arianna Huffington blaming it all on Bush, Bush, Bush, or Tom McClintock railing about taxes.

And those are just the front-runners. For the next 13 days, any trip to the supermarket or carwash will carry the risk of bumping into some stranger who happens to be running for governor and wants just a few minutes to discuss "the real issues."

The main action, of course, will involve the candidates with the most money to spend on media buys: Some dynamics of politics just won't be changed. And for the next 13 days, California TV sets will radiate negativity. Gone is the time for mushy commercials promoting the candidate's lifelong devotion to small animals and smaller tax rates.

Schwarzenegger already has gone negative, unleashing a commercial this week that blames Davis for the deficit, the energy crisis, the "car tax," Cruz Bustamante, the African drought, the slumping Dodgers, drippy faucets, jock itch and "Gigli."

The former bodybuilder, who had promised to play nice and take no money from "special interests," also spent some of the fortune he's collected from the oil, timber and real estate industries on an ad that, by implication, slams Bustamante and McClintock for receiving contributions from Indian tribes.

Of course, the mud flows in all directions. While Schwarzenegger was attacking McClintock, McClintock in turn was pointing out to the Sacramento Bee that Schwarzenegger, self-described candidate of "the people," had surrounded himself with legions of leftovers from former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's administration.

Warming to his theme, McClintock called Wilson, co-chairman of the Schwarzenegger campaign, "one of the worst" governors in California history. Yes, folks, it's election time, and California Republicans once again are eating their own.

As for Davis, the last few weeks must have been hard on such a master of slash-and-burn politics -- all those soft-edged town hall meetings, all those humiliating admissions and mea culpas, all those light-blue shirts. Now he's got millions in mean money stored up and two or three targets in range.

Few political operatives believe that the Democrats have reached the bottom of the opposition research file on Schwarzenegger. Of course, Schwarzenegger already has his defense in place. His tactic has been to claim he was only making up stuff -- about the gang sex in Gold's Gym, about inhaling and exhaling pot and all the rest. As his spokesman told a Times reporter: "As an entertainer and promoter of his sports and films for decades, he has often stretched the envelope to grab attention ... to shock and grab the reader and the viewer."

Which is kind of interesting, no? Straining for the finish line, one wonders what kind of stories candidate Schwarzenegger might concoct, how far might he stretch the envelope of truth, in order to grab the voter and become governor. Did you hear the one about how last month he became an environmentalist?

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