California GOP -- slow-mo implosion

Purists say Schwarzenegger is too liberal. Moderates say a conservative can't win. It's meltdown time for the Republican Party.

By Max Blumenthal

Published September 15, 2003 8:05PM (EDT)

As supporters rushed into the LAX Marriott parking lot outside the GOP state convention to hear Arnold Schwarzenegger speak on Saturday, they were greeted at the entrance by Jackie Goldberg, a feisty Democratic Assembly member from Los Angeles. With a welcoming smile, Goldberg handed out pink fliers reading "Attention Republican Delegates: Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only candidate not to have weighed in on LESBIAN and GAY issues." The flier, which highlighted arch-conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock's opposition to "gay bills," was a clever ploy to exploit the ideological divide between Republican moderates and conservatives and peel right-wing voters away from Schwarzenegger. "I do support domestic partnerships," the actor-turned-candidate had remarked on Sean Hannity's radio show last month. It was the kind of comment that helped deepen the Republican conflict inside the convention as McClintock's operatives maneuvered to blast Schwarzenegger's political career into oblivion and secure conservative control over the Republican Party in California.

McClintock's challenge loomed large in Schwarzegger's otherwise vacuous 10-minute speech. While trying to be Reaganesque, making big promises and evoking sunny memories of California's golden years, Schwarzenegger managed to sound more like James Brown singing "Please, Please, Please" than the breezily confident Reagan. He virtually begged undecided voters and his legion of young fans to show up at the polls for him. "If you're Democrats, Independents or Republicans, I need your help," he pleaded. "If you've never voted before, register. I need your help. Go out and vote. I need your help!"

As the speech ended, the pumped-up crowd of almost 2,000 swayed to Twisted Sister's obnoxious butt-rock anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It Anymore," which blared through the P.A. system three times in a row. Just whom they weren't going to take it from anymore was left unstated as the internal Republican rift over social issues widened. Beside the stage a huge banner reading "McClintock -- It's Time to Join Arnold" was unveiled while Schwarzenegger lunged into the crowd, pressing flesh until he was whisked away to deliver a plea for party unity at a luncheon later inside the hotel.

The Republican-initiated recall, which started off as a deft stroke of electoral manipulation, has now opened old wounds within the party, which is historically divided between cultural-conservative purists and moderate pragmatists who view party unity as the only means of Republican survival in overwhelmingly Democratic California. As Schwarzenegger avoids debates and policy discussion, hoping that personality alone will guide him into the governor's mansion, McClintock's well-honed message of fiscal and social conservatism has resonated with the purists. And recent polls show him closing the gap on Schwarzenegger, who has been paralyzed behind the Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, since Bustamante announced his candidacy in August. Monday's decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to delay the election not only gives Gov. Gray Davis much-needed time to raise money and rally support against the Republicans, it is also likely to embolden McClintock while Schwarzenegger will be forced into the open and exposed to attacks on everything from his private life to his shallow understanding of public policy.

The spectacle of Schwarzenegger's well-heeled consultants left inside a fenced-off press area behind the crowd after his convention speech, delegated with the task of painting a bright picture of a darkening scenario, will probably become a common sight in days to come. When a reporter asked campaign spokesman Rob Stutzman if Schwarzenegger was scared of McClintock, Stutzman snapped: "I haven't seen Arnold scared of anybody," as if the upcoming Sept. 24 gubernatorial debate was going to be replaced with a dead-lift competition.

Meanwhile, the conservative politicians and party activists who crafted and propelled the recall milled around the periphery of the convention, conceding that they may have unleashed a storm they cannot harness. Some of those who planned the recall are desperately trying to salvage their scheme to topple Democrat Davis by convincing fellow true believers to withdraw support for McClintock before the recall backfires, ensuring the governorship stays in Democratic hands for generations while the already fractured Republican Party spirals into total disarray.

But nothing short of a complete erosion of support for McClintock will sway him to drop out according to his deputy campaign manager, John Stoos. Stoos is encouraged by a Sept. 9 Los Angeles Times poll showing McClintock surging to 18 percent, just seven points behind Schwarzenegger and 12 behind Bustamante. Peering over his shoulder toward the parking lot where Schwarzenegger's strategists were parrying questions, Stoos remarked: "They have to figure out what they're going to do with Tom [McClintock]. Arnold came into the race at 25 percent and after spending 3 to 5 million in TV ads, he's still stuck there. They're stalled."

Down in the press area, Stutzman sought to spin the Times poll's credibility by citing some numbers of his own. "We've conducted our own polls and we're leading overall," he maintained. "We're truly very comfortable and confident with our polling."

As was apparent in Schwarzenegger's speech, the support of swing voters like Latinos is essential to thrust him ahead of Bustamante. His Latino-issues specialist, Juan Botero, told me that despite the central role played in the campaign by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican whom many Latinos loathe for his support of anti-immigrant legislation, he is counting on a huge groundswell of Latino support on Election Day. I asked Botero to sum up Schwarzenegger's message to Latinos. "Viva Arnold," he replied with a chuckle. After a pause, he added, "Dot-com."

Inside the hotel lobby, a small group of Latino Schwarzenegger delegates sat around a coffee table discussing the race. Jim Lopez, a stocky, middle-aged man from rural Kern County, asserted that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, many Mexican-Americans side with conservatives on immigration issues. "My parents came in this country the right way," Lopez said. "The Mexicans now are coming in wanting to take over this country. What do you want to become? A Third World country?" As his friends nodded in agreement, he continued with a joke: "You know why Mexico doesn't field an Olympic team? Because anybody who can run, jump or swim is already in the U.S."

While Schwarzenegger and McClintock are in apparent agreement on immigration, many of McClintock's most ardent supporters at the convention were driven by their opposition to abortion and gay rights. They demonstrated little patience for Schwarzenegger's appeals for party unity. "The first thing I look at is if a candidate's pro-life," remarked Bob Liepert, a 50-year-old McClintock delegate from suburban Torrance. "If any pro-lifer knew the facts about Arnold, they wouldn't vote for him." Earlier in the parking lot, two anti-abortion protesters carrying a huge poster of an aborted fetus that looked like a baby lathered in marinara sauce heckled Schwarzegger supporters, leaving his speech shouting, "Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the butchering of human beings!"

The likelihood that McClintock and his devoted band of zealots will wage their struggle to the bitter end worries the party insiders who manufactured the recall, and it was apparent in the grim faces they wore throughout the day. Among them at the convention was state Sen. Jim Brulte, who features on his Web site a quote by top White House advisor Karl Rove calling him the White House's "political brains and insightful wizard in California." In July, before the recall had qualified as a ballot measure, Brulte was accused by Democrats of wielding his power in Sacramento to stall a compromise on Davis' budget proposal at Rove's behest, a tactic designed to humiliate the governor and ratchet up support for the recall. During the day at the convention, Brulte was dogged by reporters about White House involvement in the recall.

"The president speaks for the White House and it's up to the people of California to decide," he told a small group of reporters -- not exactly a denial. But Brulte displayed unusual candor when asked if he was concerned that the recall would fail for the Republicans, replying: "In the days leading up to the qualification, I was concerned that the people that began the recall didn't plan it out carefully enough."

By early afternoon, most of the people Brulte was referring to had gathered on the convention floor in the hotel's dank basement. Many of them were close to arch-conservative U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall push with $1.7 million of his personal fortune to open the door for his gubernatorial campaign. When Schwarzenegger unexpectedly declared his candidacy in August, Issa's aspirations were crushed and he tearfully pulled out of the race. But despite this apparent back stab, according to James Lacy, a council member from Dana Point in staunchly Republican Orange County who served as treasurer during Issa's abbreviated gubernatorial campaign, Issa "would like one of the candidates to drop out" and is willing to back Schwarzenegger in such an event.

Standing in a nearby corridor was Assembly member Ray Haynes, the minority whip whose influence over his Republican colleagues in Sacramento and stalwart cultural conservatism have cast him as California's version of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who keeps an iron grip over the House. In March, long before the recall was known to the public, Haynes met with Issa and convinced him to fund the effort. Before going to Issa, though, Haynes sought the help of Schwarzenegger, who brushed him off. This prompted Haynes to tell online news magazine "I will be blunt: If Arnold wanted to run for governor through the recall, Arnold should have helped the recall."

But now Haynes, who is a close friend of McClintock's, is forced to swallow his pride and marshal support for Schwarzenegger among party activists. "Arnold will be a benign governor," Haynes told me. "But Gray Davis is a warrior against us [conservatives]. At least Arnold will give us time to regroup.

"Tom's a great man but I'm not sure he can do it," Haynes added, citing McClintock's relative shortage of funding. "Tom is convinced he can win. With that knowledge, it would be my job to convince the conservatives that they should get the governor's office first ... If Tom costs Republicans the race it will be a blow for conservatives like me that will be hard to recover from."

Moments before Schwarzenegger's luncheon address, a harried-looking Issa and a group of his operatives rushed past a long line of delegates waiting for the address and slipped behind a phalanx of security guards, disappearing into a backroom.

Certainly it's possible that Monday's appellate court decision could help the GOP. Perhaps, if the vote is delayed until March, McClintock would drop out for lack of funds, or perhaps Schwarzenegger will fade and McClintock will emerge as the most credible Republican candidate. More likely, though, the worst is yet to come for California Republicans. If the fight drags on, the GOP's divisive factionalism will likely be compounded and agonizingly prolonged. If current opinion trends continue, anti-recall forces could close the gap; voters might simply weary of the contest. It seems that the Republicans, through their clever manipulation, have created their very own doomsday machine.

Max Blumenthal

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

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