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 Times employee. 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 governors 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 didnt 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 Schwarzeneggers 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.
Schwarzeneggers 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 states 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 divaturnedliberal 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.
Asked by the moderator how she would balance the budget, Huffington briefly mentioned closing some corporate tax loopholes, said that Republicans only care about sexual morality, decried businesses that defraud the public, then, seemingly apropos of nothing, said, And one more thing, Arnold, you know you talk about . . .
Schwarzenegger¹s head jerked up at the meandering reference to him, Arnold. I love it. Arianna, let me say one thing. Your personal income tax has the biggest loophole I can drive my Hummer through it, referring to the controversy over her paying less than $1,000 in income tax the past two years.
Though she said shed read in The New York Times that he would criticize her for this if she attacked him, Huffington was nonetheless angered. The fur ball was on.
Finally, Schwarzenegger was asked how he would balance the budget. A very good question, since his much-criticized answer thus far is that he would conduct an audit of the books, convene his all-star panel of experts and institute a spending cap. In other words, he aint saying until after the election.
As Schwarzenegger launched into this perilous recitation, Bustamante foolishly interrupted him, saying that he had voted for a middle-class tax cut. Then Huffington jumped in to say that Schwarzenegger sounded like Bush.
Which prompted Schwarzenegger to tell her, in an obviously planned riposte, that if she wants to campaign against Bush, she should go to New Hampshire (the first presidential-primary state). Whereupon the still-angry Huffington called him hypocritical. Prompting Schwarzenegger to needle her, suggesting a little bit more decaf.
The debate then moved to the very unpopular increase of the vehicle-license fee, which the other candidates discussed, all agreeing that the increase should be repealed, one way or another. But when Huffingtons turn came, she started talking about fighting the Bush administration, noting the costly repeal of the estate tax, then said, Its completely hypocritical of Arnold to come here.
Schwarzenegger interjected, Arianna, were talking about the car tax right now.
At which point Huffington stuck her shiv in: You know, this is completely impolite and we know this is how you treat women. Calling Huffingtons remark a direct and personal attack on Mr. Schwarzenegger, the moderator then stopped the debate and gave the action superstar a moment to respond. I would like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4, Schwarzenegger said with a smile. Indeed, her relentlessness in pursuing him might well make her good casting for a terminally lethal Terminatrix character.
Ironically, so caught up were they in the crossfiring banter of the moment, Huffington and Bustamante failed to realize that Schwarzenegger had never gotten around to saying how he would deal with the budget crisis. Merely the issue on which they and the media have most frequently criticized him, yet they gave him a complete pass without seeming to understand what they were doing.
Its hard to believe that McClintock lacked the presence of mind to notice, since that is his main issue. But he offered not a peep of protest or criticism. It was all part of a very intriguing performance by the right-wing state senator. During large stretches of the debate, McClintock disappeared. He never confronted or criticized Schwarzenegger, even though the two rivals were sitting right next to each other. No turning to the exMr. Universe with a no-new-taxes pledge to sign, no bringing up his associates musings about tax increases, no challenging his liberal social and environmental views, no allusions to the notorious Oui interview, none of that.
After the debate, Huffington made much of the Terminator 4 quip, saying it was an offensive reference to a scene from Terminator 3 in which Schwarzeneggers character briefly stuffs a female terminators head into a toilet shortly before she knocks him through a wall.
Talking with the Weekly late Wednesday night, Huffington, an old friend of the Weekly (named by her in her book How To Overthrow The Government as one of a handful of people influential in the dramatic shift of her thinking from right to left), acknowledged she didnt know that the quip meant he wanted to shove her face in a toilet. But she was still offended, especially by Schwarzeneggers interruptions of her, a common practice by Huffington herself in this and other debates. She might also be offended by Bustamantes sarcastically condescending tone toward her as he repeatedly said, Yes, Arianna, in response to her gibes at him. Not that people care as much about the lite guv as they do about the exbodybuilder.
Lacking their predicted McClintock-vs.-Schwarzenegger fireworks, Democratic spinners seized on this morsel. Bob Mulholland, who apologized last month after declaring that Schwarzenegger would face real bullets in the campaign and who more recently told the Weekly that Schwarzeneggers 1977 Oui magazine musings about group sex constituted rape, told reporters that the T4 quip would dominate the closing days of the campaign.
While hacks and flacks lingered at the site picking through the entrails of a surprisingly lively bird now quite dead, the Weekly was off to a big Schwarzenegger rally at the Cal Expo fairgrounds. There, 1,000 Arnold backers had packed into one of the exposition halls to watch the debate and be warmed up by comedian Dennis Miller and Sacramento Kings center Vlade Divac, star of the Yugoslavian world-championship basketball team and yet another formidable California figure with a pronounced accent. With wife Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger greeted the exuberant crowd, whose roars echoed repeatedly off the rafters. Confident and buoyed by his performance, the erstwhile actor assured his supporters that only with all your help can I make it, but I will soon be hanging out a lot in Sacramento.
Despite all their public talk about closing the gap on the recall, Team Gray acted as though they were deeply worried about just that. At his only public appearance of the day, where he signed legislation promoting stem-cell research, the embattled governor simultaneously expressed satisfaction with his uphill climb and increasingly pointed disdain for Schwarzenegger, predicting that he couldnt handle the give-and-take of a debate. And his staff unloaded a blizzard of press releases, focusing on the good works of the governor and the evil, ignorant ways of his opposition. Actually, only one evil, ignorant opponent in particular. That would be, of course, as the candidate self-deprecatingly referred to himself at a recent press conference, Governor Schwarzenschnitzel.