By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
SACRAMENTO — Now that was a fun, interesting debate. One could sense the drama welling up blocks away from the auditorium at Sacramento State. Competing chants and demonstrators on all sides of the recall, a giant white tent, dozens of satellite-TV trucks, banners festooned everywhere, even a marching band nearby. It all added up to a festive scene that has been missing in California politics for many years.
Signing in at the media table, the Weekly encountered a very enthusiastic Los Angeles Timesemployee. “Can you believe all this energy?” he said. “Not like the great Davis-Simon debate at the Times last year,” he noted mockingly, speaking of the governor’s only debate appearance of the last election. People on the street outside at that debate, well, come to think of it, there were no people at that debate other than the invited guests and media inside. Aside from the real people outside Wednesday night, more than 300 media folks attended the debate. Hundreds of TV and radio stations around the state carried the event live, as did three national cable networks. It was much like the action in a pivotal presidential primary, which California also has not seen for many years.
Most debates are dreadful affairs, disjointed and canned, with panels of journalists asking disconnected questions that allow neither flow nor focus. This debate had focus and flow on central issues and plenty of interchange between the candidates, which rarely happens in the conventional debates. In this case, too much interchange. Moderator Stan Statham, head of the sponsoring California Broadcasters Association, lost control from the beginning, and the event came to resemble a more substantive version of the cable-news chatter-fests.
At first, the long-absent star of the show, Arnold Schwarzenegger, seemed a little lost, as if he had somehow expected something more sedate, like Meet the Press. But as his opponents began jumping to attack him, he got into the flow. Maybe a bit too into the flow. Jousting often with righty-turned-lefty commentator Arianna Huffington, Schwarzenegger was probably overly focused on showing he could contend with her vaunted debating skills, developed at Cambridge and honed on more combative political talk shows than you can imagine.
The big questions of the debate were whether the movie superstar and former world bodybuilding and power-lifting champ would demonstrate that he grasped the issues of the governorship and whether he would come under what in recent days has seemed an inevitably withering attack from his trailing Republican rival, Tom McClintock. The answers were yes, which should not have been a surprise, and no, which was something of a surprise.
Schwarzenegger more than held his own, not just with answers to a pool of questions known in advance, but with the often rapid-fire back-and-forth between the candidates allowed in the freewheeling format of this debate. Contrary to many expectations, he didn’t falter or even hesitate.
Better still for Schwarzenegger than his performance was the performance of McClintock. Resistant to rising pressure from throughout the Republican Party that he abandon the race, McClintock and his aides had in recent days done quite a bit of anti-Arnold saber rattling, repeatedly saying, in essence, that the big guy did not know what he was talking about and was a closet liberal to boot.
Yet McClintock, an accomplished debater with a strong grasp of the details of state government, never laid a glove on Schwarzenegger. Nor, to the great surprise of many, including advisers to the Republican front-runner, did he try. With McClintock chiming in on much of what Schwarzenegger said, the stage seems set for a graceful stepping away from the potential abyss of disaster that a continuing contentious split between the two might cause. Even Schwarzenegger’s revealing that he believes the children of illegal immigrants should receive health-care services — in addition to the education for illegal immigrants the Weekly first reported last month — did not cause McClintock to criticize him.
Schwarzenegger’s principal rival on the replacement ballot, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, the only name Democrat, also acquitted himself with a certain aplomb, making no gaffes. But he, too, failed to land a solid punch on Schwarzenegger, finding himself jarred instead on several back-and-forth occasions.
During an hour and a half containing many amusing moments, one of the most amusing for the Weekly came when the lite guv was asked about the budget crisis. (A few weeks ago, in an exchange with the Weekly, Bustamante revealed his fundamental misunderstanding of the cause of the budget crisis and of the dynamics of the power crisis. Bustamante had insisted that the power crisis caused the budget crisis, ignoring the fact that temporary state payments for power purchases were covered by a bond issue, with no effect on the state’s general fund.)
This time, he got it right. “Clearly we spent too much,” Bustamante acknowledged. “We spent more than we had.” Yep.
Bustamante, who remains under fire for the multiple machinations around his massive campaign fund-raising from Indian casino tribes and public employees, vanished into the night without doing the post-debate press conferences every other candidate did.
While Green Peter Camejo impressed at times with a passionate and knowledgeable advocacy for his agenda of sustainable environmental policies, racial justice and a crackdown on corporate profiteering, it was the other progressive, conservative diva–turned–liberal columnist Arianna Huffington, who got most of the spotlight. And she did this, not surprisingly, by counterposing herself to the star of the show. In so doing, she threw off the most contentious sparks of a contentious debate.
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