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Candidates' Spin Cycle Starts Right After Debate

With the exception of Bustamante, they meet the press and praise their performances.

September 25, 2003|Matea Gold and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — When the main event ended, the real jousting began. The parade through the press room started shortly after the commencement of the Wednesday evening debate at Cal State Sacramento.

Before Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger could even make it to the lectern, comedian Dennis Miller darted in, drawing a clutch of television cameras that focused their lights on him.

"Of all the people out there, I couldn't tell who the first-timer was," said Miller, an official member of Schwarzenegger's spin team.

Before he could utter much more, the candidates trooped in, all but Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who skipped out on the post-debate show.

Unsurprisingly, they all thought they did well.

"This was a fantastic experience," Schwarzenegger said. "I had a great time out there.... I think this was very successful for me."

State Sen. Tom McClintock said: "I have every confidence that as this momentum continues and builds, we'll be in first place on election night."

A little more than an hour later, he said in an interview on the Fox television network that his campaign Web site had received pledges of $20,000 and 4,000 new volunteers in the first hour after the debate.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo declared California the winner.

He then added to a Spanish-language reporter: "I think I did well because, at the very least, the voice of a candidate who does not have a lot of money had a chance to speak to the voters."

But independent candidate Arianna Huffington wanted to talk about the barb she fielded from Schwarzenegger during the debate.

"I would just like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4,' " the actor said as Huffington peppered him with criticism.

Huffington told reporters in the press room that she found the comment offensive and urged women to withhold their support of the actor.

"That was such a clear and unambiguous indication of what he thinks of women," she said, adding that she believes the actor was referring to a scene in his last movie in which he shoved a female robot's head in the toilet.

Democratic spinmeisters quickly seized on the issue.

"His attack on Arianna will haunt him for the next 13 days," said Democratic Party advisor Bob Mulholland.

Chris Lehane, who worked as former Vice President Al Gore's press secretary in 2000 and has done work for Gov. Gray Davis, said the comment would cost Schwarzenegger votes and prove potentially fatal.

"The guy has five one-liners and he uses all of them against Arianna," Lehane said.

Republicans said Schwarzenegger was merely responding to Huffington's attempts to monopolize the debate.

Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster), offering commentary for Schwarzenegger's campaign, dismissed the comment as humor and said Huffington had tried to draw attention from the men on stage.

"She was out of line," Runner said. "I felt she was not giving the other candidates the time they needed to answer questions. It was unfortunate that she tried to use her gender to get attention."

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said he had no idea what role Schwarzenegger had in mind for Huffington in "Terminator 4," other than perhaps "the wicked woman."

Riordan dismissed Schwarzenegger's barbs: "Is he supposed to step aside, and say, 'You poor, wonderful woman, stay in the kitchen. I don't want to hurt your feelings.' Don't you think she should be treated as an equal?"

Republican Dave Gilliard, a consultant who oversees a committee mounting the recall, shrugged off Schwarzenegger's tart responses to Huffington by saying, "He looked like what he is," a nonpolitician who may not be politically correct.

The biggest recall election debate of the year had all the trappings of a presidential event.

Police stood guard on the roof of the Student Union while more than 300 reporters from 100 media outlets and at least five countries jammed rooms inside.

"It's New Hampshire with better weather -- or Des Moines with palm trees," said Lehane.

Earlier, outside the debate, another kind of persuasion politics was at work.

As television reporters jammed the south lawn behind the Student Union for their 5 p.m. newscasts, dozens of red-faced Schwarzenegger supporters chanting, "Yes on recall, yes on Arnold!" collided with a batch of anti-recall demonstrators who were countering with "No on recall!"

Behind them, warring banners competed for attention from the cameras.

"Up for Auction to the Highest Special Interest Bidder," read a scarlet sheet featuring the faces of Gov. Gray Davis, Bustamante and McClintock. "Howard Dean for America" read another sign.

A dozen stern-looking Sacramento police officers stood alongside the demonstrators, eyeing them warily.

Some of the 130 recall candidates who were not invited to the forum mingled with the demonstrators, hoping to catch a moment in the limelight.

Mike McCarthy, a car dealer from San Luis Obispo, pranced down the walkway in red, white and blue boxer regalia and a large gold dollar sign hanging around a chain from his neck.

He stopped to pat the head of 5-year-old Rio Padilla-Smith, who handed out yellow fliers for his grandfather, Leonard Padilla, a law school president and bounty hunter also running for governor.

The young boy even offered some suggestions for his platform.

"I want all the schools to be in English and Spanish, because I know both languages," the boy said.

Onlookers -- many of them students -- watched the proceedings with a mix of bewilderment and amusement.

"I think Florida is happy that this is happening," Devin Cook, a graduate student studying computer science, said as he snapped photos with his digital camera.

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