Arianna vs. the Terminator?

By most accounts, California Gov. Gray Davis' days are numbered. Beyond that, pundits say, the October recall vote is totally unpredictable.

By Tim Grieve
Published July 25, 2003 7:18PM (EDT)

The drive to recall California Gov. Gray Davis made the ballot this week, and the reaction in Sacramento wasn't exactly subtle. As jubilant young Republicans partied outside the state Capitol, a local radio talk-show host queued up Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" and proclaimed: "Now we know how the Iraqis felt when that statue came down."

Over at the headquarters of the California Democratic Party, the reaction was only slightly more nuanced. With moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and populist something-or-other Arianna Huffington both poised to enter the race to replace Davis, Democrats realize they can no longer dismiss the recall drive as the fantasy of a million or so right-wing extremists. So chief Democratic spokesman Bob Mulholland was diving for the gutter this week in the hope of dirtying up the Terminator -- and trivializing Huffington -- before their candidacies take hold with voters. In a telephone call with Salon, Mulholland mocked Huffington's evolving political allegiances, riffed on Arnold's alleged penchant for groping women who aren't his wife, then took time to note that Schwarzenegger's father was a member of the Nazi Party during World War II.

"That stuff can be hard for any family," Mulholland said of the dirt he was dishing on Schwarzenegger. But he said it in a tone that suggested something less than heartfelt sympathy for the Schwarzenegger clan, and he didn't come close to apologizing. "Schwarzenegger has got to ask himself, 'Do I put myself in the election, take all the abuse and lose?'" Mulholland said. "I served in Vietnam, Gray Davis served in Vietnam, and we're not going to be replaced by somebody whose dad was in the Nazi army."

It's ugly and weird and depressing and confusing and fascinating here, and it's about to become more of all of those things. Eleven months after they elected him to a second term, California voters will go to the polls on Oct. 7 to decide whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis. The ballot will bear two questions: Should the governor be recalled? And if so, who should take his place and serve the remainder of his four-year term?

Would-be candidates have two weeks to place themselves on the ballot. So far, only two have said officially that they will do so: the Green Party's Peter Camejo and millionaire Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who funded the massive effort that resulted in the collection of more than 1.3 million valid signatures on petitions to recall the governor. Neither Camejo nor Issa seems much of a threat: Camejo drew only about 5 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in the fall, while Issa is likely too conservative -- and perhaps too intellectually challenged -- to carry even the plurality needed to win in October. Earlier this week, the two-term congressman from Southern California found it necessary to tell the New York Times that he had "an IQ of 100 plus a little bit" and allowed himself to be photographed, like some kind of beaming rube tourist, next to a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

But that doesn't mean Davis is safe. The official line from Schwarzenegger central is that Arnold hasn't yet made up his mind -- that he and his wife, NBC News correspondent and Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver, are still talking through the possibilities while Schwarzenegger barnstorms through Mexico to promote "Terminator 3." But Schwarzenegger has been telling friends that he's going to run, and he has assembled a crack team of Republican strategists to guide him through a campaign.

Meanwhile, word is that Huffington is seriously considering entering the race if anyone asks her to do so. On Thursday, a group of California activists launched a Web site and a drive to draft Huffington, whose weekly column appears in Salon. In a press statement, Van Jones, the coordinator for Run Arianna Run, pitched the draft-Huffington movement as a middle road between the Republican recall and the Democrat pact to protect Davis.

"Instead of staying stuck on stupid in a suicide pact with Davis, voters have a chance to elect Arianna Huffington as a progressive, populist governor," Jones said. "We do have a third way out."

But like Schwarzenegger, Huffington is playing it coy. Through an aide, she said last week that she was too busy to talk with Salon about the recall.

Between Huffington and Schwarzenegger, Arnold is plainly the candidate that Democrats fear most. While Issa and other vocal recall supporters come from the hardcore right wing of California's dysfunctional Republican Party, Schwarzenegger does not. He is a pro-choice moderate who opposed the impeachment of President Clinton. As an enormously popular Hollywood star who can style himself as a political outsider, he can run his own campaign, above questions about whether the recall is a legitimate exercise of Democratic rights or a willful subversion of them. The growing conventional wisdom: If Arnie runs, Arnie wins.

"This is where it gets tricky for Gray Davis," says Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen, who was a speechwriter for California's last Republican governor, Pete Wilson. "Davis' mantra has been, 'The recall is a right-wing coup, a right-wing cabal, they want to take away your right to choose and drill for oil off the coast.' But if the field expands to Schwarzenegger or (former Los Angeles Mayor) Richard Riordan, he can't say that anymore. It's a huge problem for him because he'll be fighting on too many fronts."

The other problem for Davis is Schwarzenegger's star power. For all the glamour of the Golden State, governors generally -- and Davis in particular -- have largely operated out of the spotlight. They're just not interesting enough to trump Laci or Kobe or any of the other tabloid tales that drive California's TV news. Schwarzenegger won't have that problem. "If Arnold enter the race, it becomes the Arnold race," Whalen said. "Reporters will be covering him first and foremost. Gray Davis will have a hard time getting a word in edgewise. A typical Davis campaign controls the airwaves with ads. But Schwarzenegger will be on the news every night."

With Schwarzenegger apparently edging closer and closer to an announcement, the question now is who will be on the news with him? Schwarzenegger and Riordan are friends and apparently have a pact: Riordan won't run if Schwarzenegger does. Former New York congressman Jack Kemp, who was Bob Dole's vice presidential candidate in 1996, is rumored to be considering a run. After them, the possible-to-likely Republican candidates are a string of lesser lights, including millionaire businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in the fall after running one of the worst campaigns in California history, conservative Republican congressman Tom McClintock, and Darrell Issa.

Issa's team sees him as the rightful heir to the throne: He paid for the recall, and he ought to reap the benefits. "Darrell Issa was in the race at the beginning, and he will be there at the end," said Jonathan Wilcox, Issa's communication director. What if Schwarzenegger runs? "Doesn't matter," Wilcox says. "Darrell Issa doesn't want to have an arm-wrestling match with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he is not afraid of running against him."

Wilcox rejects the notion that Issa is too conservative to win. If Californians are really as liberal as they're made out to be, he says, then Davis would be more popular than he is. When they go to the polls, Wilcox says, Californians will be looking to reward the man who gave them the chance to dump Gray Davis. That's Issa, not Arnie.

For the Democrats, such internal Republican infighting may be their best hope. In the last gubernatorial election, Davis all but conspired with Republican right-wingers to make sure that the moderate Riordan wouldn't make it out of the Republican primary. After spending millions on advertising to undermine the candidacy of the former Los Angeles mayor, Davis was able to demonize the ultimate Republican nominee -- the bumbling Simon -- as the worst sort of right-wing zealot. Mulholland made it clear that Davis will try the same tactics this time in a bid to keep Republicans from rallying around Schwarzenegger.

"The Republicans are going to have three to five candidates in the race, and we'll work with each of them," Mulholland said. "Bill Simon isn't going to go through the campaign saying, 'I like Arnold Schwarzenegger.' The other Republicans will go after him -- that he has pledged unlimited support for abortion, gun control, gay adoption, that he said he was embarrassed to be a Republican during the Clinton impeachment." In the meantime, the Democrats and the tabloids will be beating the drum over the well-publicized allegations about Schwarzenegger's sexual indiscretions.

Schwarzenegger has denied the allegations, but he has done so in a way that is something less than politic. In a profile in the Weekly Standard last year, Schwarzenegger was quoted as saying that the allegations against him were so outrageous that he didn't even have to explain them away -- to his wife or anyone else. "When someone said [they] walked into my trailer, and I was eating a chick in the living room, [Maria] knows I'm not that stupid, number one. Number two, I have two guards standing out at all times in front of my trailer so no one could walk in ... . That already makes the story not credible."

Credible or not, the personal attacks may be all that Davis has. He ran negative campaigns to get elected in the first place, and now it appears that he will have no choice but to do so again. With approval ratings in the 20 percent range and a state budget deficit of $38 billion, Davis can't run on his record. And with Schwarzenegger in the race, he can't run based on fear of the right wing. And even if Schwarzenegger were to stay out of the race, it's not clear that such tactics would carry the day anyway.

While the recall campaign was started by ideologues on the right, California voters are dissatisfied with their government -- and their governor -- in ways that are not particularly ideological. The state is in a budget crisis; like the country as a whole, California has gone from record surpluses to a huge deficit virtually overnight. But while George W. Bush seems to get a free ride for the nation's fiscal woes, Davis is buried with the blame for California's crisis. Voters see Davis as an incompetent manager, a pay-for-play politician with no agenda beyond securing the next campaign contribution.

"We're in a non-ideological recall, and it's a mistake for Davis to think that he can run on ideology," said Tony Quinn, editor of the California Target Book, a publication that analyzes California political races and districts. "Davis has been pitching this as if it's left vs. right. But the public is mad about management. They don't want their taxes raised, they don't want their services cut. They want someone who can manage these things."

Schwarzenegger will have to prove that he can do that -- that he's not just a successful movie star but a successful businessman as well. He'll also have to hold his breath. While Schwarzenegger leads the polls in most possible matchups, the race tightens considerably if Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to come to the Democrats' rescue.

So far, Democrats have vowed that none of their own will enter the race. There's plenty of speculation that the dam will break soon. By setting the election at the last of three possible dates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante also effectively pushed back -- until August 10 -- the deadline for candidates to enter the race. That will give Democrats the most time possible under the law to track the polling on Davis and see if they should join the race to replace him.

For now, the polls provide little solace for the Davis camp. The latest Field Poll shows that, if the election were held today, 51 percent of likely voters would recall Davis. While Davis supporters are optimistic that those numbers will shrink as the vote draws nearer, Davis has little upside potential: Californians already know him and already don't like him. He can't hope to make major inroads by reintroducing himself now.

The news isn't much better for Democrats more generally. While California is a profoundly Democratic state -- statewide voter registration tilts 44-35 against the GOP -- it's not clear that the Democrats can field a candidate who can beat Schwarzenegger. It's unlikely that any of the in-state Democrats has the name recognition or celebrity status to outrun him. Dianne Feinstein might be able to do it, especially if she can position herself as a "favorite daughter" outsider who is coming home to fix the mess in Sacramento. But all indications so far are that she won't make the run.

Although there is no love lost between Feinstein and Davis, Feinstein has criticized the recall effort and reportedly rebuffed efforts to draft her into the race. That could change, however, if the Republicans come together behind Schwarzenegger and it appears inevitable that Davis is going to lose. "All the Democratic powers behind the throne are polling now: Can Davis survive, yes or no?" said Whalen. "If they figure out that the answer is no, they've got to hotfoot it to Dianne Feinstein. Nobody else stands out among the Democrats in California, and she can say she's going to come in and rescue the California people -- sort of a white knight of California politics."

If her backers have their way, Huffington could play that role, too. While Huffington certainly has experience with the rigors of a high-profile campaign -- her ex-husband served in the House of Representatives before spending $30 million in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Dianne Feinstein in 1994 -- it appears that no one in either party is taking the draft-Arianna movement too seriously.

Huffington underwent a political transformation over the last decade, shifting from a darling of the Newt Gingrich Republicans to a populist who rails against the abuses and fraud of corporate leaders and the wastefulness of SUVs. In an essay she wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2000, Huffington explained that she had been "seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled" by Gingrich's purported interest in helping the poor and middle-class. That didn't send her into the arms of the Democrats, however. She wrote that her disillusionment with the Gingrich Republicans left her searching for a path "that would take us beyond the standard left-right paradigm and provide new solutions to the greatest crisis America is facing today: the fact that we have become two nations, one basking in unprecedented prosperity, the other left to choke on the dust of Wall Street's galloping bulls."

While those bulls aren't galloping anymore, questions about Huffington's true allegiances linger -- at least among those eager to dismiss her fledgling candidacy. Mulholland asked mockingly whether Huffington is registered as a Democrat or a Republican now, and -- in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement -- a California Republican strategist raised exactly the same question. "What letter would Huffington put after her name -- P for populist or W for Westside?" he asked. "We've talked about Huffington more as a joke than anything else. With Arnold and Arianna, nobody would understand what either of them is saying."

Of course, it may be that only the big-party operatives don't understand. Voters are frustrated with everything that's coming out of Sacramento right now, and the recall effort -- although launched by right-wing Davis-haters -- may be tapping into a vein of reform-minded populism that has always run deep in California voters. That populist streak led to the adoption of the state's recall laws in 1911, and it could lead to any number of unexpected and unpredictable outcomes now -- pranksters even had people believing this week that Ozzy Osbourne is about to enter the race.

While His Ozzness might not have a shot, things are moving quickly enough that just about anyone else might. If Davis goes down, it will take only a plurality vote to choose his successor. If enough candidates run, that means that someone who draws, say, 20 percent of the vote might wind up being governor. While conventional wisdom says the winner will be a big-name uniter like Schwarzenegger, it's still possible that a small-time candidate with a devoted core following could take the race, too.

For political operators used to a more predictable, money- and incumbency-driven status quo, the recall drive is a little like those photos of Uday and Qusay -- they're horrifying, but you can't help wanting to look. "We all like this race because a lot of politics in this country is very predictable," says Whalen. "This isn't like that at all."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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