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The State | George Skelton CAPITOL JOURNAL

Underdogs Come Out Looking Good in Recall Debate

September 26, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — Sacramento

The two campaign favorites both got roughed up by a woman's sucker punch and the two underdogs wound up winners.

At least, that's how I scored it after watching Wednesday night's entertaining debate -- and still do after listening to all the spin, punditry and talk show yap.

Here's what I saw:

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading contenders, walking right into some nasty exchanges with independent Arianna Huffington that they had no hope of winning.

Sure, Huffington goaded them, but so what? We teach our kids to avoid such fights.

Schwarzenegger acted like a blunderbuss and looked like a bully, interrupting Huffington in a collision of booming and shrill European accents that was hard on the ears.

Huffington: "Let me finish. Let me finish. Let me finish. You know, this is completely impolite and we know this is how you treat women, but not right now."

Schwarzenegger managed to smile, but his cheeks flushed and he looked like he'd just been slapped. He brought some laughs with his retort -- "I have a perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4,' " -- but that's not exactly the best use of TV time for a guy trying to show voters he's up to being governor.

Viewers weren't hanging on every word and wiggle of Bustamante, as they were Schwarzenegger, but he was equally as inept at dealing with Huffington. At one point, the lieutenant governor was dripping with condescension:

Bustamante -- "Just let me say this so you can understand it for the final time."

Huffington -- "You know what, I have been writing about these things ... "

Bustamante -- "Yes, Arianna. Yes, Arianna."

It takes much more political skill than either Schwarzenegger or Bustamante have for a male to get away with bulldozing -- or talking down to -- a female rival. Especially one who really doesn't pose a threat, even if she is annoying. It just makes people squirm.

So the winners?

Gov. Gray Davis won in absentia. He's still an underdog trying to defend himself against the recall, but the debaters didn't lay many gloves on him.

"They forgot what this is all about and why we need to get rid of Gray Davis," says Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the Target Book, a running analysis of political races.

Davis also won because many viewers, I suspect, shook their heads as spit wads flew, the leading contenders failed to impress and Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) seemed too far off to the right. They glanced over at the socialist-leaning Green candidate, Peter Camejo, and may have begun concluding that keeping Davis around for three more years might not be such a bad option.

The other winner: McClintock, hands down.

The veteran lawmaker stayed clear of Arianna and above the fray. He was respectful, but also assertive in articulating his conservative views. Among the five debaters, he clearly was the most knowledgeable about state government and had a specific solution for virtually every problem.

"You know where he stands," Huffington noted.

Indeed, McClintock surprised some political pros by reminding people in his closing statement that he opposes abortion rights and gun control. These have been losing positions in recent top-of-the-ticket California races.

"Tom and I discussed it," says his campaign manager, John Feliz. The strategist says research has shown that a candidate gets points for courage and conviction when he stands up for views "that are a tad bit politically incorrect. People respect that.

"It says, 'This is who I am, exactly what I believe in. I'm not going to fool you.' It shows this is a person serious about changing [government's] direction."

Republican leaders are trying to force McClintock out of the race -- so he and Schwarzenegger won't split the GOP vote -- but the senator says he's not budging.

And why should he? He was the most impressive at the debate.

"Not only is he not getting out," says Feliz, "he's thinking either Bustamante or Schwarzenegger would be an absolute disaster as governor."

Schwarzenegger's fate may hinge on whether he was correct last month when he proclaimed: "The public doesn't care about figures." I figure he may be right.

Somebody, however, should straighten out Arnold on one figure: The state no longer has a $38-billion deficit. It's down to a projected $10 billion.

The public heard a lot of one-liners, but not many specifics from Schwarzenegger. It didn't hear much deep-rooted philosophy either.

"He came out just fine," says Sean Walsh, an advisor. "He was comfortable up there. He wanted to be engaging.... Most people thought Arianna was a pest."

Maybe. But both Arnold and Cruz have to stop leading with their chins against Arianna.

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