Loading...

Confessions of a Pundit-Turned-Player 

How I tried to set up a Davis-Schwarzenegger debate

Thursday, Oct 2 2003
Comments

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.

Related Stories

  • Sabotage is a Belt of Bourbon After Years of Sipping Diet Pepsi

    Arnold Schwarzenegger's name is only about one-seventh the font size of the title on the poster of Sabotage, formerly Breacher, formerly Ten, his third attempt — after the full-auto Western The Last Stand and the goofy Stallone–co-headlined prison-break joint Escape Plan — in 14 months at a post-gubernatorial comeback. A...
  • Jay Leno's Favorite Target Was ... Bill Clinton

    For all the talk about the "liberal media" (both news and entertainment) favoring Democratic candidates, you'd think a West Coast comedian like Jay Leno would practically be an honorary party chairman. But he embraced former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his friend, and always gave a warm, respectful platform to presidents...
  • It's a Good Time for Bruce Willis, Action Star, to Die Hard

    Something's seemed different about No. 1 American action hero Bruce Willis lately. His action movie output in recent years has mostly been stunt casting in mediocre sequels (The Expendables 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), or supporting roles in little-seen B-movies (Setup, Catch .44, Fire with Fire), as if he's in a
  • Marijuana: Exercise Can Get You Extra High

    If you ever wondered why SoCal surfers, skaters and even some body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger in his early, Venice days) are often reliable weed smokers, this might provide at least a part of the answer. A new study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence shows that you don't
  • Top Zip Code for Top-Dollar Home Sales Includes City of L.A?

    Beverly Hills real estate is often overshadowed by pricier digs in Holmby Hills, home to the Playboy Mansion; Bel-Air, which boasts of many 10,000-square-foot-plus abodes; and Pacific Palisades, where Arnold Schwarzenegger and many other celebs live. But the gilded city is back in its rightful place as king of all

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.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Slideshows

  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Scenes from the O.J. Simpson Circus
    In the months after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, the drama inside the courthouse riveted the masses. But almost as much mayhem was happening right outside the building, as well as near Simpson's Brentwood home. Dissenters and supporters alike showed up to showcase art inspired by the case, sell merchandise, and either rally for, or against, the accused football star. Here is a gallery of the madness, captured by a photojournalist who saw it all. All photos by Ted Soqui.