California recall smackdown

With the vote to oust Gov. Gray Davis less than two weeks away, Arianna uses a prime-time debate to stage a relentless attack on the Terminator.

By Tim Grieve

Published September 25, 2003 5:40AM (EDT)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington threw jabs and slung mud at one another during a televised California recall debate Wednesday night, bloodying both of their campaigns, emboldening Schwarzenegger's rival on the right, and leaving Huffington hinting that she may withdraw from the race.

The debate, held just days after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the off-again, on-again recall election will go forward on Oct. 7 after all, was the first and only one that Schwarzenegger has agreed to attend. Davis himself wasn't there -- the debate's sponsors allowed him to appear solo at a "town hall" meeting in Sacramento last week -- and he was barely mentioned during the 90-minute debate. Thus, with less than two weeks to go in the race, with Schwarzenegger running neck-and-neck with Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and with two-thirds of all likely voters telling pollsters that the debate would play an important role in their voting decision, the focus Wednesday night was on the five candidates invited to participate -- but mostly on Schwarzenegger.

For the bodybuilding actor, who has avoided spontaneous contact with reporters in favor of the friendly couches of Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno and Howard Stern, the debate offered a chance to show that he could handle himself without a script and to display a mastery of California government sufficient to undercut the spoiler campaign of his Republican challenger, state Sen. Tom McClintock. For Schwarzenegger's rivals, who have appeared together at other debates over the last several weeks, Wednesday's debate was an opportunity to stand their ground and try to bring the Terminator down.

No one really succeeded.

Schwarzenegger said little of substance in the debate, seldom if ever volunteering answers to questions. While McClintock and Bustamante frequently offered detailed discussions of government programs and issues, Schwarzenegger was silent so often that the moderator, the head of the California Broadcasters Association, repeatedly had to ask the actor to state his views. Huffington, on the other hand, attempted to dominate the debate from the beginning, attacking Schwarzenegger early and often, even when there was no real opening for doing so. In the midst of an early give-and-take in which Schwarzenegger had said nothing, Huffington jumped in and said: "And one more thing, Arnold."

As McClintock worked to build up his conservative bona fides, as Bustamante danced the fine line between opposing the recall and advancing his own candidacy, and as many of the other 130 candidates in the race milled around outside the debate hall, Huffington made herself the centerpiece of the debate. Again and again, Arianna attacked Arnold. Again and again, Arnold returned fire. Huffington went after Schwarzenegger on the issue of corporate tax loopholes. Schwarzenegger jabbed back with a blast at Huffington for not paying any state income taxes in 2002. "Arianna," he said, "your personal income tax, you have the biggest loophole. I could drive my Hummer through it." Huffington responded by explaining that she is a writer with up-and-down income, and that she hasn't spent her life making "$20 million violent movies."

And so it went for 90 minutes. Although Huffington is a relatively minor candidate -- her poll numbers have always been far below double digits -- she played a dominant role in the debate, and Schwarzenegger gave her the attention, if not the respect, due a more serious challenger. When Huffington tried to link California's budget problems to the Bush administration's economic policies, Schwarzenegger said she should lay off the caffeine and "go to New Hampshire" if she wanted to "campaign against Bush." In another exchange, when Schwarzenegger attemped to cut off Huffington midsentence, she snapped: "That's the way you treat women, Arnold." Schwarzenegger responded: "Arianna, I have the perfect part for you in 'Terminator 4.'"

It was apparently a reference to the recent Entertainment Weekly interview in which Schwarzenegger expressed glee over his chance to hold a woman's head in a toilet during the filming of "Terminator 3." When asked about the comment after the debate, Schwarzenegger merely smiled and said: "I don't think I need to explain that." Huffington did explain the comment at her post-debate press conference -- quoting from the Entertainment Weekly article, and saying that it was "inappropriate" for Schwarzenegger to suggest that he wished to visit the same violence upon her.

While Huffington's incessant attacks on Schwarzenegger ultimately drew groans and jokes in one of the two rooms where reporters watched the debate, Huffington said in her post-debate press conference that she had already talked to several women who felt "empowered" by her attacks on Schwarzenegger and the other men at the debate. Still, at the end of the press conference, Huffington hinted that the end of her run may be near.

When asked whether she would consider dropping out -- particularly if doing so would help Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante defeat Schwarzenegger -- Huffington said that it was an "open question" but that she would not discuss it further. Huffington said she had not set any timetable for making a decision, and her press aide, Parker Blackman, warned against reading too much into her remarks. He told Salon Wednesday night that Huffington had left open the possibility of withdrawing previously, and that she had not discussed the matter with him recently.

In the days leading up to the debate, Schwarzenegger's challengers had complained that the format favored the actor. The debate's sponsor, the California Broadcasters Association, collected questions from California voters, then chose 12 of the questions to distribute to the candidates in advance. The debate would be a take-home quiz, and Schwarzenegger's challengers complained that it robbed them of any chance of having a spontaneous and free-flowing discussion with him.

Those worries proved unfounded. Many of the questions were put to the candidates. But after each brief answer, the debate devolved into a no-holds-barred smackdown, with candidates shouting and interrupting and generally carrying on in an animated and contentious manner. Huffington made the most aggressive use of what turned out to be a free-form format, diving in at every turn in an effort to knock Schwarzenegger down; making clear her anybody-but-Arnold approach, she said that "the last thing California needs is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger."

After the debate, Huffington said she had hoped to show voters that Schwarzenegger was something other than he seemed, and she expressed confidence that she had done so. Still, during the heat of the debate, Huffington seemed to acknowledge that the brawling between them had become so much meaningless noise. Toward the end of the debate, Huffington and Schwarzenegger were talking over one another; Huffington vowed to keep talking, just to see "who can speak louder in a foreign accent."

The Schwarzenegger camp had hoped the actor's performance at the debate would be the knock-out punch for McClintock, the conservative Republican state senator who holds in his pocket enough votes to assure victory for Schwarzenegger if he would only agree to drop out of the race. But unlike Huffington, McClintock showed no sign of giving up Wednesday night, telling reporters in a post-debate press conference: "I made a promise at the outset of this campaign that I would stay in the race to the finish line. To me, a promise is a promise, and it will be kept."

While he never attacked Schwarzenegger directly, McClintock repeatedly stressed -- albeit obliquely -- that he is the only real Republican in the race. He talked again and again about the need to lower taxes and decrease regulation on business, and he stressed that he is the only candidate who is opposed to both abortion and gun control. In his closing remarks, he drew contrasts -- again, obliquely -- between his experience in government and Schwarzenegger's lack thereof, saying that California needs a governor "who knows every inch of this government and is able to defeat the spending lobby that now controls it."

McClintock called the sparring between Schwarzenegger and Huffington "unfortunate." Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, who has aligned himself with Huffington for much of the campaign, also sought to distance himself from the sniping. At his post-debate press conference, he said he intentionally stayed out of the fray, commenting on other candidates only when he actually agreed with their positions.

And indeed, amid the noisy Arianna-Arnold brawl, Camejo frequently found moments in which to shine. In a calm, professorial tone, he spoke eloquently about the need for universal healthcare, affordable housing and renewable energy, and he called for higher taxes on -- and stricter scrutiny of -- major corporations. In the process, Camejo somehow managed to position himself -- at least until his closing remarks sent him on a rambling rant about war and peace and international law -- as a middle-ground candidate between the Republicans and the Democrats. In a discussion about California's budget woes, for example, Camejo complained that "all [Republicans] want to do is cut cut and rip rip, and the others, well, they get all the money in the world, they spend it all, and we don't know where it went." Referring to the California budget surplus that somehow became a $38 billion deficit, Camejo said: "I want an audit."

Still, while many mainstream voters may have found in Camejo a more reasonable voice than they might have expected from a "fringe" party candidate, Camejo acknowledged after the debate that he has no realistic chance of winning the race to replace Gray Davis. But like McClintock, he said he will stay in the race until the end, even if doing so costs Bustamante -- and the Democrats -- a chance at holding on to the State Capitol. Because neither Democrats nor Republicans have supported instant run-off voting, Camejo said they have only themselves to blame if spoiler candidates rob them of victory on Oct. 7.

While Huffington's attacks on Schwarzenegger -- and her hints about dropping out -- may have given Bustamante a boost Wednesday night, Bustamante's own debate performance surely did not. The lieutenant governor spoke in a touching and heartfelt way about the children of immigrants, but for much of the night he seemed to be reading from the pages of Al Gore's debate book. He all but rolled his eyebrows and sighed as Schwarzenegger spoke, and he repeatedly complained that the other candidates did not understand the workings of California government. At times he seemed tired; at other times, he looked depressed.

But both Huffington and Bustamante improved their lots in their closing statements. Huffington turned away from Schwarzenegger and talked about herself, saying she hoped to bring the "priorities of a mother" to the State Capitol -- "a good school, healthcare, and a clean and safe world to live in." Bustamante spoke about growing up poor in California's Central Valley, about how his family understood the value of hard work, and about how his concern for "struggling families" drives his political decisions. He said that the recall was "serious" business, and he predicted that Californians would see through the circus atmosphere of it and cast their votes carefully.

Outside the debate hall, though, it was hard to avoid the circus. Because the debate was limited to the five candidates deemed sufficiently important by the sponsoring California Broadcasters Association, many of the other 130 candidates in the race had no choice but to mill around the campus of California State University at Sacramento, where the debate was held. Georgy Russell, the 27-year-old software engineer whose winning ways and Web site have made her a minor media darling, ate frozen yogurt in the campus food court and passed out "Georgy for Governor" buttons to college students.

She lamented that issues that she believes are important -- gay marriage, the death penalty -- wouldn't be addressed inside, and that the major candidates weren't likely to get specific about their economic plans for California. Mike McCarthy, a pro-business candidate, danced through a crowd of reporters dressed in red, white and blue boxer's togs. Sacramento bail bondsman and candidate Leonard Padilla stood around by himself, talking on a cellphone while a child passed out fliers for his campaign. And write-in candidate David Scully, who claims that he somehow gave birth to the recall drive 21 years ago, attempted to win the vote of fellow unknown candidate Douglas Anderson.

About 50 young men sporting "Join Arnold" T-shirts held a noisy rally for Schwarzenegger, fronted by a half-dozen women holding a "Women Joining Arnold" banner. If it was an effort to defuse concerns about the Terminator's track record with women, the Schwarzenegger supporters on the scene weren't particularly up to the task. They wrote off his raunchy talk in a 1977 Oui interview as ancient history from a man who didn't live his life to be a politician, but they seemed unfamiliar with more recent comments in which Schwarzenegger described the shock of meeting a woman "that is as smart as her breasts look" and expressed glee over his chance to hold a woman's head in a toilet in "Terminator 3." Wouldn't such comments give a woman pause? "No," said Amy McGrew, a 30-year-old graphic designer who drove up from the Bay Area to lend her support to Schwarzenegger. "That's just guy talk."

Tim Grieve

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

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