Confessions of a Pundit-Turned-Player 

How I tried to set up a Davis-Schwarzenegger debate

Thursday, Oct 2 2003

Governor Gray Davis, looking at his dismal poll numbers, decided three weeks ago that his best shot at staving off the recall would be to debate his leading opponent, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I played a major role in trying to set up such a debate. Only now, after Davis went public with his challenge, am I free to talk about the negotiations and how they broke down.

On September 8, one of Davis’ longstanding senior advisers asked me to serve as an intermediary in an attempt to engage the action-movie superstar turned Republican gubernatorial front-runner in a one-on-one debate with the embattled Democratic incumbent. In the obvious public interest of holding such a debate, I agreed, even though it meant crossing the line from a commentator to a participant of sorts in a political campaign.

For the next two and a half weeks, I passed confidential messages between the two camps. Only a handful of people at the very top of the campaigns knew of our negotiations. Last Friday, the discussions halted with Davis’ public and unilateral challenge to Schwarzenegger, which violated one of the principal terms agreed to by both parties, that there would be no grandstanding with discussions under way.

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Last week Davis told the media that he only came up with the idea for a face-to-face debate after watching what he called Schwarzenegger’s distortions of Davis’ record during the debate among five challengers last Wednesday in Sacramento. Davis demanded that the actor correct his “misstatements,” saying, “I might have to debate him.” Asked by the media if that was a challenge to Schwarzenegger, Davis said he would announce a decision in two days.

Davis didn’t wait two days. Last Friday, appearing at an event with former Texas Governor Anne Richards, Davis declared that he was challenging Schwarzenegger to debate “right here, right now.”


In truth, “right here, right now” actually occurred 18 days earlier when longtime Davis pollster and senior strategist Paul Maslin asked me to facilitate, in a back-channel capacity, a debate between Davis and Schwarzenegger. Since a journalist served as a back channel between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was not exactly a stretch for me. I am well-acquainted with both Davis and Schwarzenegger and have known Davis for more than 20 years. Maslin is an old friend and onetime colleague of mine in Democratic politics, as is Garry South, the former chief of staff and longtime chief strategist to Davis, to whom Maslin handed off the Davis-Schwarzenegger debate-liaison role. Maslin was a little busier doubling as pollster for Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean than was South in his role as a senior adviser to Senator Joe Lieberman. (Davis not so privately backs Senator John Kerry.) And South, architect of Davis’ two gubernatorial triumphs, was re-emerging after a break from Davis in a principal role in the save-Gray drive.

Convinced that the public wanted a showdown between Davis, who was the subject of the recall, and Schwarzenegger, the leading face of the recall, I took on the assignment with enthusiasm, informing the action superstar of the very intriguing Davis move and entering into discussion with South and Maslin’s counterpart, top Schwarzenegger strategist and media consultant Don Sipple.

Why did the Davis camp want a debate with Schwarzenegger? Because the governor is in desperate straits. Davis polling, then as now, showed the governor falling short of defeating the recall. It also showed Schwarzenegger leading the pack of replacement candidates. Further, it showed Schwarzenegger with greater expandability than the only name Democratic replacement candidate, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.

Maslin knew that Bustamante’s massive illegal funding by Indian-casino tribes was driving his negatives skyward, and that Bustamante’s serious misstatements about the budget crisis, power crisis, immigration law and other issues were likely to shatter the Democratic candidate’s media credibility. The Davis analysis then, as now, was that Schwarzenegger was likely to defeat Bustamante. And that the governor, while able to make up ground against the effort to recall him, needed a dramatic event to prevail. Nothing would be more dramatic for Davis than debating Schwarzenegger.

If the governor could defeat the Hollywood legend in a debate, he might yet survive the recall. If he lost to Schwarzenneger, the action hero would almost certainly be the next governor of California. It was as simple as that, and both sides knew it.

While the Schwarzenegger campaign did not agree to a debate with Davis, it showed interest. The Davis camp, not surprisingly, quickly had a format in mind: a special weekend edition of Meet the Press, with host Tim Russert as the moderator. No panel of journalists was to be involved. The debate would be filmed on a Saturday and aired on a Sunday.

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