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The coming showdown of Arnold vs. Gray

Thursday, Sep 18 2003

United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta executed a sudden quarter-turn away in the midst of conversation at the special state Democratic convention in downtown L.A. over the weekend. “What is it?” the Weekly asked the legendary stalwart of statewide Democratic campaigns. “It’s Cruz Bustamante,” she replied. “I don’t want a picture with him,” said Huerta, just appointed to the University of California Board of Regents by embattled Governor Gray Davis, for whom she is campaigning up and down the state and who had just received an enthusiastic response from the convention crowd. “They asked me to help and I said, ‘Sorry, I have a methyl bromide memory,’” referring to the pesticide that then-Assemblyman Bustamante wanted sprayed in the fields. “He was never with us while Cesar (Chavez) was alive.”

Sure enough, it was Bustamante, who veered off and made his way to the stage in a half-empty L.A. Convention Center hall to accept the Democratic Party nomination for governor on the recall’s replacement ballot. The lieutenant governor’s speech was a curiously unmomentous affair, a Davis-like litany of recent bills passed by the Legislature. He closed with a lament about the injection of race into the campaign, citing a little-known radio attack ad few have heard. “This has been a great month for Democrats,” declared Bustamante, somewhat incongruously. He said he would keep signing the bills the Democratic Legislature sends him and “pay the price necessary to ensure equal opportunity.”

Not surprisingly, he took no questions. The lite guv has swiftly supplanted the ex-bodybuilder as the stealth candidate, holding only one press availability last week. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hampered by an overly cautious campaign that unwisely kept him out of the first debate, did five.

So it was back to the LAX Marriott for the rest of the Republican convention. Mirroring the yoyo-ing of the election, the Weekly bounced back and forth between the dueling crosstown conventions of the weekend. And what of that 9th Circuit ruling, throwing into turmoil an election in which many have already voted? Many experts still assume the election goes forward on October 7. But what if the most overturned appellate panel in the nation is upheld? Bustamante’s problems as a candidate become still more obvious.

Schwarzenegger loses novelty but perhaps gains in competence. Right-wing state Senator Tom McClintock finds it even more difficult to raise money. Davis gets a chance for the initial wave of recall anger to subside. And his slight uptick in support, which is very slight, increases. But he suffers a backlash from angry moderate and conservative voters who become just as likely to vote as liberal Democrats turning out for their allegedly interesting presidential primary, which has so far engaged only enthusiasts of the little-known candidates. And he has to face the electorate in the midst of the latest budget crisis, a likely referendum on the highly unpopular bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, and after months of car tax increases. So the deeper dynamics of the recall may well continue no matter when the election takes place.

It was a very different Republican convention. Traditionally, most of the delegates are hard right. Schwarzenegger’s pal and fellow moderate, Dick Riordan, was shelled at last year’s Republican confab in Silicon Valley. This was practically an Arnold-fest, with Schwarzenegger paraphernalia everywhere. After whipping up a crowd of 1,500 at a high-energy rally in the morning, Schwarzenegger addressed an overflow crowd of a thousand at the convention luncheon, to frequent hearty applause and nary a word of naysaying, save for a lefty Code Pink protester who snuck in and briefly unfurled a banner dredging up the Oui interview. His topic? “Why I am a Republican. I am asked this 30 times a day,” Schwarzenegger said. “And that’s just from Maria!”

Schwarzenegger carried the assignment off, concentrating on fiscal conservatism and his love for Ronald Reagan without delving into his social and environmental views. Still, he looked much more comfortable at the earlier rally, where he talked about appealing to independents and Democrats.

In contrast, most of the crowd at the convention dinner sat on its hands while McClintock delivered up his true-blue conservatism. This is McClintock’s problem if he decides to stay in as an active candidate; his supporters melt away to go with someone who can win. McClintock, citing yet another L.A. Times poll that is out of phase with other credible polls — even some Timesies admit they don’t buy it — claims he is “surging” but can cite no other evidence.


The Weekly had expected a strong right-wing claque at the Republican convention heartened by the Times poll, which was tellingly released on convention eve. Instead, while some were still defiant, none were emboldened.

A senior Democratic strategist with close ties to Governor Davis scoffs at this latest specious Times poll, which has the recall in a dead heat and a close race between Bustamante and Schwarzenegger with McClintock moving into a strong third: “The L.A. Times poll is not correct, but two things are true: The recall is softening somewhat. And negative attitudes about Cruz are skyrocketing.” Times poll director Susan Pinkus left town for more than a week after the release of the poll.

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