Contender, or spoiler?

Democrats insist Arianna Huffington can't be the next governor. She says she can beat Schwarzenegger -- and Gray Davis, too. If she gets close, watch things get ugly.

By Tim Grieve

Published August 16, 2003 11:58PM (EDT)

Ralph Nader stopped by the recall race this week, and somebody hit him with a pie. If that's a sign of how Democrats view spoiler candidates -- many still blame Nader for making the 2000 presidential election close enough for George W. Bush to steal -- then don't be surprised to see Gray Davis greasing a pan on Oct. 8. California's governor is sinking fast, and soon he'll be looking for someone to blame.

Apple or cherry, Arianna?

Conservative turned progressive Arianna Huffington hit the hustings this week in her race to replace Gray Davis, striving to establish liberal credibility with campaign stops in South Central Los Angeles, Oakland and a rough-and-tumble San Francisco neighborhood where Tony Bennett might have lost his wallet but never would have left his heart. Along the way, the Salon columnist (she's taking a leave to campaign) attempted to make the recall a referendum on national politics, "connecting the dots" between Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush, between the economic troubles facing California and the economic policies coming out of Washington.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Bush Republican," Huffington told a small group of supporters at a rally on a San Francisco street corner Wednesday. "It's laughable for Bush Republicans in this campaign to be attacking Gray Davis for fiscal irresponsibility while turning a blind eye to the orgy of fiscal responsibility going on in Washington."

In the first official week of the campaign, Huffington has established herself as the most visible -- if not the most viable -- candidate who is not Arnold Schwarzenegger. Building on the success of "Pigs at the Trough," her bestselling attack on corporate greed and the government policies that feed it, Huffington has quickly pulled together a campaign team and drawn support from a broad range of progressives, ranging from tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill to "Seinfeld" writer and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star Larry David. Talking to CNN last week and blasting the recall, HBO "Real Time" host Bill Maher predicted "my girl Arianna" could be California's next governor. Her Web site has brought in more than $100,000 in campaign contributions, and her public appearances have offered a glimmer of hope that the recall drive may ultimately be less of a circus and more of a debate about the problems facing California and the nation -- and the role that the two major political parties have played in creating them.

But Huffington's early success may come at a price. While Democrats are happy to have her out there on the attack against Schwarzenegger, they are beginning to suggest that the risks of her candidacy will outweigh any possible reward. Hufffington criticizes the recall as a "right-wing power grab," but some Democrats believe her entry into the race increases the chances that Davis will be ousted and that a Republican -- Schwarzenegger, probably -- will be elected to take his place. With the latest Field poll showing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante holding a slight lead over Schwarzenegger, Democrats are likely to get even more worried about Huffington's candidacy.

"The fundamental effect of her candidacy will be to increase the vote for the recall," says Phil Trounstine, a former Davis communications director who now runs the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. "She and [Green Party candidate] Peter Camejo could play Ralph Nader to Al Gore." Trounstine's unsolicited advice for Huffington: "If she believes in a progressive agenda, if she believes in real politics, then she ought to be opposing the recall."

The funny thing is, a lot of Democrats -- including those at the very top of the state party -- think that Huffington is opposed to the recall. California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres and spokesman Bob Mulholland both told Salon this week that Huffington opposed the campaign to topple Davis. "She's against the recall," Mulholland said. "She's said it 22 times. She has been consistently against the recall."

And Huffington is against the recall, but only sort of. "I'm asking voters to vote their consciences," Huffington told Salon Thursday. "If they want to send a message to Republicans about the way they're using the recall provision to unseat Gray Davis, even though he had been democratically elected nine months ago, then vote no on the recall. But if they want to use this opportunity to bring some fundamental change to the way that California is governed, then vote yes on the recall."

For Huffington, the choice is apparently an easy one: "I'm personally voting yes on the recall," she said. "Even though I'm against the power grab, the opportunity in the middle of the chaos is too important to me."

To hear Huffington and her supporters tell it, the recall provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance for victory by someone outside the major parties. When voters go to the polls on Oct. 7, they will face two questions: Should Davis be recalled, and, if so, who should replace him? Because there were no primaries leading up to the recall, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have coalesced behind a single candidate. While Schwarzenegger holds a commanding lead over Republicans in the field, he faces competition on the right from state Sen. Tom McClintock and businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November. And while Bustamante is the only prominent Democrat on the ballot, he faces challenges on the left from Huffington and Camejo and suffers from the split-personality aspect of the two-part Democratic strategy. The name of Bustamante's Web site is enough to convey the problem. It's

With the vote -- and the parties -- split every which way, a candidate with broad appeal and a clear message could cut through the clutter and take the race. "There's a historic opportunity here to have a governor who will be responsive to the people, a governor who can really set a bold, aggressive, progressive agenda," says Huffington spokesman Parker Blackman.

There's certainly that opportunity, but it may not be a particularly realistic one. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted between Aug. 7 and Aug. 10, 48 percent of "probable voters" said there was a "good" or a "very good chance" that they would vote for Schwarzenegger. Huffington drew just 5 percent in that poll, well behind Bustamante, Simon and McClintock and just a point better than porn king Larry Flynt. She drew 4 percent in the Field poll, which showed Flynt with only 1 percent.

Few outside of Huffington's campaign expect those numbers to get much better. Torres predicts that Huffington will take about 4 percent of the vote on Oct. 7, and many other political observers agree. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California's School of Planning, Policy and Development, also put Huffington's final number at about 4 percent. "I just don't see it getting much bigger," said Jeffe, who writes and speaks frequently on California politics.

Huffington disagrees, of course. With 135 candidates on the ballot, she says, it is impossible to know how this race will play out. She points out that no pre-election poll predicted that Jesse Ventura would be elected governor of Minnesota -- and that she has hired members of Ventura's team to work on her campaign.

Moreover, as Camejo spokesman Tyler Snortum-Phelps says, the fact that Schwarzenegger is leading the race -- and is, as yet, something of an unknown quantity -- means that anything can happen down the stretch. And if enough anythings do happen, a progressive like Huffington or Camejo could win.

"A lot of things have to happen," Snortum-Phelps said. "First, you have to count on debates in places where large numbers of people can hear Peter's or Arianna's message. You have to count on a little more thorough examination of the alternatives, of the problems with somebody like Arnold and his background." Schwarzenegger could implode, some say, if voters become disenchanted with his private life, reporters get cranky about his refusal to address issues of public importance, or the Christian right continues to squawk about his social liberalism. Meanwhile, if Bustamante gets tarred as "Davis Lite," Snortum-Phelps said progressives could make a major move. "At that point, we would anticipate that the funds would start flowing in, and things would snowball."

The key is to stay in the race -- to maintain viability -- until then. And for Huffington, the first days of the campaign have brought somewhat mixed results on that front. She stumbled once even before the campaign began. At a mixer in her Brentwood home, Huffington told supporters that Camejo would drop out if she got in the race. That wasn't quite the deal -- Camejo has since said that he will drop out only if it looks like his departure would give Huffington a chance to win -- and Huffington was knocked for overreaching. She was criticized for overreaching again -- this, time physically -- last weekend, when she waited outside the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters office to make sure her turn filing candidacy papers coincided with Schwarzenegger's, and then crowded into the TV cameras' shot of Schwarzenegger and his wife, Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver, leaving the building. Some saw the ploy as clumsy, though since it got Huffington's picture on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, others saw it as politically savvy.

Certainly in campaign appearances in the Bay Area Wednesday, Huffington came off as natural and self-assured, charming and well-spoken. At the San Francisco rally, a supporter thrust a 4-year-old African American girl named Jasmine into the candidate's arms. It was clichéd and too cute by half, and someone in the crowd grumbled, "Oh Christ, how Republican." But then Huffington began to speak, and the small crowd grew quiet as she improvised a beautiful riff around an imagined future for the little girl. "I'm running for governor so that, when Jasmine goes to school, there's a school worth going to," Huffington said. "I'm running so that, when Jasmine turns 18, she'll want to register to vote." There weren't many people there to see it, but it was a small moment of magic on the stump -- and a sign that Huffington could give the Terminator trouble if she lasts long enough to do it.

But the Bay Area trip was followed by another ding -- an article in the Los Angeles Times explaining how Huffington, who has railed against tax breaks for "fat cats," paid only $771 in federal income taxes -- and nothing in state income taxes -- over the last two years. The insinuation wasn't entirely fair. Huffington said she spent much of the last two years researching and writing and not collecting royalties. And much of her income apparently comes in non-taxable child support payments from her ex-husband, millionaire Michael Huffington.

Still, for a glamorous woman who lives in a $7 million Brentwood home, the tax story carried a certain sting. Amused and seemingly a little gleeful, Torres said it could be the end of Huffington's candidacy "among those who treat her as an icon," and that -- at the very least -- it will "diminish" her ability to go after Bush's tax-cutting policies. Camejo -- who features on the first page of his Web site a chart showing the disparity in taxes paid by the rich and the poor -- was apparently reserving judgment on the issue.

And for those inclined to dislike Huffington anyway, the tax story played into the sense that she's merely a wealthy dilettante, either clueless of -- or arrogant about -- the risks that her candidacy could create. There is a certain "to the manner born" aspect of Huffington, and it comes out in conversation now and then. In a conference call with the alternative press Wednesday, Huffington was asked whether the deal she had made with Camejo was reciprocal -- that is, whether she would drop out if it looked like he had a shot at winning. She said she hadn't given it much thought because, in her view, it was much more likely that she -- not he -- would be within striking distance of victory.

And when asked Thursday about her role as a possible spoiler in the race, Huffington railed against the possibility of a Gov. Schwarzenegger but then denied any responsibility -- or, it seemed, any concern -- for whether that possibility would become a reality. "There's no question, the worst thing would be to have a Republican governor," she said. But what if her presence in the race gives progressives a comfort level in voting yes on the recall or draws would-be winning votes away from Bustamante. "Oh," Huffington said, "that really is of no interest to me."

If Huffington's numbers grow and the polling on either question draws close, you can expect the spoiler talk to boil up hard from Democratic Party central -- and it's going to be nasty. Traditional Democrats are somewhere between disgusted and amused by Huffington's fabled political transformation -- before her transformation to progressive politics, she was the darling of the right who called on Newt Gingrich to run for president and Bill Clinton to resign -- and they appear all too ready to take her to task.

"There is no scenario under which Arianna Huffington becomes governor of California, so you have to question the sincerity of her effort," said Trounstine. "There's no base for her among California voters because she has no political status that matches the California voting experience. We're not even sure who she is. Is she still the devotee of [new age spiritualist] John Roger? Is she the Grover Norquist ingénue? Or is she Ralph Nader in drag?"

Huffington's supporters say she absolutely believes she can win. At each stop on the campaign trail, Huffington acknowledges the questions and does with them what she can. "I am not a conventional candidate," she says, "but these are not conventional times." And Huffington is clearly making her mark on the campaign, at least for now. In Beverly Hills on Thursday, she went after Schwarzenegger for his role -- as yet unexplained -- at a meeting he and other California political and business leaders attended with Enron's Ken Lay in 2001. The meeting came at the height of California's energy crisis, and Lay reportedly used it as a vehicle for promoting Enron's plans for addressing the crisis. Confronted with Huffington's questions Thursday, Schwarzenegger said he didn't remember the meeting and that "it doesn't matter what Arianna or anyone says" about him. Suddenly, at least for a moment, Arnold seemed vulnerable.

"It seems like she's able to get under Arnold Schwarzenegger's skin," said USC's Jeffe. "I think she's got him a little off balance, and that could lead, along with other things, to his losing his cool."

For Huffington, it's a step, the first blow anyone outside Rush Limbaugh has been able to land on the chiseled chin of the Terminator. It's not a knockout or even much of a brush-back. But in a field of 135 candidates all clamoring for attention in a 10-week campaign, it's at least as good as a pie in the face.

Tim Grieve

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

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