It's Arnold vs. Arianna after all

Dianne Feinstein tells Democrats she won't run, Schwarzenegger tells Jay Leno he will -- and Huffington jumps in, too.

Published August 6, 2003 6:24PM (EDT)

In what may have been the longest day in the shortest political campaign in history, the muddled mess of California's gubernatorial recall race got a bit clearer Wednesday -- but not in a way that many Democrats would have liked. Before most Californians were out of bed Wednesday morning, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced that she would not enter the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis. And as night fell, action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on "The Tonight Show" that he intends to be a Republican candidate for governor.

For both Schwarzenegger and Feinstein, the announcements capped weeks of will-they-or-won't they speculation. Schwarzenegger was initially said to be nearly certain to run, but then his advisors announced he was leaning toward a decision against. Democrat strategists had made it clear that they would make an issue of allegations about womanizing and groping by the Austrian-born actor, and Schwarzenegger's wife, Kennedy cousin and NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, was said to be wary of a run. But on a taping of "The Tonight Show," Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno he was going to run, and the news jumped into the headlines hours before the show was televised.

"The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing," Schwarzenegger said. "The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis. He is failing them terribly, and this is why he needs to be recalled and this is why I am going to run for governor."

Meanwhile, columnist Arianna Huffington appeared on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday morning -- it was a big day for NBC -- and announced that she will enter the race. "However corrupt the parentage of the recall, it has given us an unprecedented opportunity to take back our political system -- to reorder our policy priorities so that our public servants will finally, at long last, get back to serving the public," Huffington said in a statement.

Wednesday's political trifecta kicked off what will be a frenzied few days in the summer's hottest political story. On Oct. 7, California voters will go to the polls to answer two questions: Should Davis be recalled and, if so, who should replace him? Candidates contemplating a run to replace Davis have until 5 p.m. Saturday to make their decisions and file the required paperwork.

Feinstein's announcement put to rest one story -- and set the stage for a dozen others. Although party leaders have maintained all along that no high-profile Democrat will appear on the ballot to replace Davis, over the last few weeks several Democrats -- including at least three members of California's congressional delegation -- called for Feinstein to enter the race. In their view, Feinstein's candidacy would have been the best way to keep California in the hands of a Democratic governor -- whether that governor was Davis, if the recall loses, or Feinstein if it wins. Until Wednesday, Feinstein had equivocated, criticizing the recall but always leaving the door slightly ajar on the possibility that she might run. With Wednesday's announcement, she slammed that door shut.

"First and foremost, I deeply believe the recall is a terrible mistake and will bring to the depth and breadth of California instability and uncertainty, which will be detrimental to our economic recovery and decision-making," Feinstein said. "This recall demonstrates that virtually anyone with $1.5 million can hire professional petition gatherers certain to produce enough signatures to force a future recall of any state elected officials. It sets a terrible precedent which ought to cause us all to think very carefully."

With Feinstein out, with Davis' poll numbers getting worse by the minute, with the deadline to enter the race just three days away, and with Arnie's announcement grabbing all the ink anyone's got, other Democrats are feeling the pressure to move quickly if they want to make a run. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante on Thursday reversed himself and said he would continue to oppose the recall but put his name on the ballot in case voters do oust Davis. Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi also was expected to announce Thursday that he will join the race. Former Secretary of State March Fong Eu has said she may run, too. And some Democrats have begun to talk up a candidacy by Leon Panetta, but the former White House chief of staff has not made any public statements suggesting an interest in the race.

While the Democrats may be suffering from a dearth of well-known candidates, Republicans could soon face the opposite problem. Conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock signed papers to put his name on the ballot Tuesday, and the recall's sponsor, millionaire Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., will apparently make his entry official immediately. Businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, has all but announced his candidacy and will do so in the next few days. But Schwarzenegger is widely seen as the toughest foe for Davis; indeed, recall supporters enticed would-be petition signers this summer with the tease that, if the recall made the ballot, the Terminator might be California's next governor. In the meantime, dozens of other candidates have announced or are expected to do so in the next day or so. The vast majority are complete unknowns, and the knowns aren't necessarily viable. Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt undoubtedly has decent name recognition, but not many Californians are expected to cast votes for one of the world's leading purveyors of porn. And Californians aren't exactly clamoring to cast their votes for child actor turned shopping-mall security guard Gary Coleman.

Still, while it will take a majority vote to oust Davis, his replacement will need only a plurality to win. With a crowded field dividing the vote, it's possible that a candidate who draws only 15 or 20 percent could win. For Feinstein and other major-party traditionalists, that's a reason to vote down the recall. If Davis is ousted, she said, the next governor could be a fringe candidate who has "no background or knowledge of the state's enormous portfolio of issues -- whether it be the $99 billion budget, the numerous pieces of legislation awaiting signature or veto by the governor, or the thousands of pending appointments to critical judgeships and important state posts."

A number of Democrats who presumably have such knowledge -- state Sen. Dean Florez and Rep. Loretta Sanchez among them -- said in recent days that they would consider a run if Feinstein stays out of the race. However, it is unlikely that any of them has the statewide appeal or the financial wherewithal to make a serious run on the Statehouse. Thus, if Davis' numbers continue to drop (Wednesday the San Jose Mercury News published polls showing that 55 to 56 percent of voters support the recall) the Democrats' best hope may be some sort of intervention by the California judiciary.

With echoes of Florida 2000 bouncing around the Golden State, courts will consider in the next few days several legal challenges to the recall drive. Wednesday afternoon, the California Supreme Court will receive the final legal briefs in a case in which Democratic activists have argued that there should be no second question on the recall ballot. Under the California Constitution, they say, if Davis is recalled, the lieutenant governor -- Bustamante -- automatically takes his place. Although the California Supreme Court is dominated by Republicans, Democrats see some hope in the fact that the court ordered an expedited briefing schedule in the case, which could leave time for a decision even before the candidates' filing deadline on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Davis has filed his own legal challenge in the California Supreme Court. In his case, Davis argues that the state and its counties cannot possibly ramp up for a fair election by Oct. 7. Further, he argues that the equal protection rights of his supporters are violated by the California Constitution's provision that prohibits him from running to replace himself on the second half of the recall ballot. Legal scholars say there's little chance the Supreme Court will buy Davis' arguments. But Davis supporters like to say that their man has been written off as dead many times before, and that each time he has come back to surprise his opponents. The Davis camp may have begun celebrating just such a resurrection after Feinstein's announcement Wednesday morning, but the party ended with Schwarzenegger's turn with Jay Leno Wednesday evening. As night fell on California, it was looking more and more like Oct. 7 will mean hasta la vista, baby, for Davis and the few voters who still support him.

By Tim Grieve

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

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