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Prop. 66 in Tough Fight

Schwarzenegger steps up campaign against proposed changes to the three-strikes law. Backers plan new ad to counter his influence.

November 01, 2004|Robert Salladay and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

REDDING — The fight over proposed changes to the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law remained furious going into the final day of the campaign -- with both sides launching last-minute ads today.

Proposition 66 would amend the law to allow a life sentence only if a person is convicted of a third felony that is violent or serious. It would remove eight crimes from the violent or serious category and would toughen sentences for some crimes against children.

In the final days of the campaign, it has emerged as the toughest fight on the state's lengthy ballot. The proposition had been well ahead in polls until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed by Henry T. Nicholas III, one of the state's richest men, began an intense effort one week ago to defeat it.

A Field Poll released Saturday indicated that the campaign has had a major impact. The poll was taken over seven days, ending on the day Schwarzenegger's ads began airing. Likely voters interviewed in the first four days favored the proposition 58% to 34%. Those interviewed over the following three days, which included the Wednesday launch of the ads, were split, 48% to 47%. The samples had a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

Schwarzenegger went into the fall saying he would focus on a few state legislative races and just a handful of measures on the ballot -- principally Propositions 68 and 70, two measures related to gambling, both of which he opposes. But in the final weeks, he has taken on additional tasks, including opposition to Proposition 66.

At times, as he campaigned around the state Sunday, even he seemed flummoxed by the range of issues that he had taken on, resorting to using flashcards and posters to instruct the crowds: Vote "yes" on Propositions 1A, 59, 64 and 69, but "no" on 63, 66, 67, 68, 70 and 72.

Schwarzenegger ended up telling people just to look at his website and a voter guide he mailed statewide for extra measure. "Everyone is confused," he said after a rally in this Northern California city just south of Lake Shasta. "The smartest people, not just people that don't know about politics. Smart people are confused."

In Alameda County, Schwarzenegger initially forgot to urge voters to support Assemblyman Guy Houston (R-Livermore), who is in a tight race to hold onto his seat. It was only after the governor ended his speech and had spent several minutes shaking hands with supporters that he returned to the podium to urge support for Houston.

Another candidate who received short shrift was President Bush, whom Schwarzenegger barely mentioned at his events, opting instead to joke about how, like Bush, he constantly is forced to debate "a liberal Kennedy Democrat" -- a reference to his wife, Maria Shriver.

Staff members tried to keep the events focused on Schwarzenegger's message.

At the rally here, a man in a wheelchair showed up wearing a T-shirt that used an epithet to denounce Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry. He was given a "Join Arnold" T-shirt to wear instead and was gently told his own T-shirt would come across as too negative. The man kept the Arnold T-shirt in his lap.

Another man stormed out of a rally in Pleasanton before it began and urged others to do the same. "This isn't a Bush rally," he warned people as they filed into the hall.

Although some Republicans say Schwarzenegger has not done enough to support Bush, backers of Proposition 66 say he has gone overboard in his attacks on the ballot measure. They accuse him of misleading voters. Television commercials warn Californians that if the ballot measure passes, "26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison."

A heated dispute has raged over how many prisoners would qualify for resentencing under Proposition 66, but Schwarzenegger's flat statement that 26,000 would be released exaggerates the potential impact. Under the ballot measure, many prisoners sentenced under the three-strikes law would be eligible to have a hearing on a new sentence.

Prosecutors say 26,000 inmates are eligible. Supporters of Proposition 66 say the number of eligible inmates is 4,200. None, however, would be released automatically, and some of those who are eligible would still have time to serve on their sentences or would open themselves to trial on new charges if they asked for a rehearing.

Supporters of Proposition 66 hope that a new ad airing today will counter Schwarzenegger's influence. The 30-second commercial shows items such as a bottle of baby formula, superimposed with a $1-million price tag.

"Would you spend a million dollars for a sweater? How about a bottle of baby formula ... or some AA batteries?" asks an announcer, who then tells viewers that the $1-million figure represents the overall cost of the lengthy sentences given to inmates serving time for stealing such items.

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