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Confessions of a Pundit-Turned-Player

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.

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.

 

The Schwarzenegger camp expressed no problem with the format requested by Davis. But no Davis-Schwarzenegger debate decision would be made before Schwarzenegger’s first political debate of his life, on September 24 at Sacramento State University.

Dialogue continued, especially with the Davis camp, throughout the period in which Davis was supposedly coming back in the polls and Schwarzenegger was supposedly in trouble. The governor always wanted a debate with Schwarzenegger; it was central to his strategy since Labor Day. Indeed, both Schwarzenegger and Davis had the action superstar leading Bustamante or at least in a dead heat while some public polls — most notably the Los Angeles Times poll — had the lite guv in the lead. In fact, a very wide lead, according to a notorious Times poll of last month, which both the governor and the movie star discounted out of hand.

Early on, one major glitch threatened to derail talks early on when Jesse Jackson, appearing with Davis, started some long-distance taunting about Schwarzenegger debating Davis. I quickly contacted South and Sipple about it. South assured me in an e-mail that Jackson had “no inside knowledge of our strategy, tactics or back-channel contacts with anyone.” And that the good reverend was freelancing. In any event, Davis had reportedly already departed before Jackson made his provocative remarks.

Going into the big debate last week in Sacramento, both camps were aware of the stakes. The Davis team realized that if Schwarzenegger did well in the debate and if McClintock stayed in a strong yet distant third place, as he was then doing in both campaigns’ polls, then the former Mr. Universe would be in a strong position in the election. As anticipated, that turned out to be the result of the debate, despite Schwarzenegger’s gratuituous dustup with conservative turned liberal commentator Arianna Huffington.

 

With the big debate in the rearview mirror, I took a planned break in San Francisco. Don Sipple’s call reached me on my cell phone late last Thursday afternoon at Emporio Armani where my friend Viktoria and I were looking at clothes.

“Do we have a damn back channel going here or not?” demanded the usually imperturbable Sipple. “And what is that music?” As the customary fashion electronica pulsed in the background, I asked what was up.

Davis, it turned out, had declared that he was so upset by Schwarzenegger’s purported inaccuracies that he was thinking of asking for a debate with Schwarzenegger. He further said that he would decide whether to ask for a debate in two days. Since he had already been trying to get a debate for two and a half weeks, this was amusing, to me if not to Team Arnold. I told Sipple I would call Garry South.

South, who doesn’t always answer his cell phone, didn’t answer. A few hours later, I got through, but it seemed to be a bad connection, perhaps caused by the urban canyons of San Francisco and the real if boutique canyons of L.A. South said something about “miscommunication,” then the line went dead. I called back and he didn’t answer, nor did he respond that night to a page or an e-mail.

The next morning I was back in Sacramento for a McClintock press conference. South called on the cell phone at the close of the event. In the course of a long conversation, the governor’s longtime chief strategist agreed that Davis had abrogated our agreement. And he suggested that at an event later that day with former Governor Ann Richards, Davis would simply challenge Schwarzenegger to debate.

Davis had good reason to break our agreement. He knew the Sacramento debate went well for Schwarzenegger and that McClintock would no longer be the threat he had been portrayed to be in the press. More important, he knew the action superstar would have far less reason to debate him now.

 

Without the debate he and his chief advisers had long sought, Davis was reduced to the campaign we see now, an abandonment of the positive campaigning that had partially if very belatedly revived him and a renewal of the relentless negative campaigning that turned off many voters last year. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger, having finally consolidated most of the Republican Party behind him, is moving back into positive mode, campaigning as a radical centrist during a statewide bus tour that culminates this Sunday in a big rally outside the state Capitol. While a campaign is never over until it is over, some bad things have to happen to prevent a Schwarzenegger victory.

It is unfortunate that Schwarzenegger will not debate Davis. It would be a spectacular story and would entertain and educate the public. Such an event might help people see whether or not Schwarzenegger could be a governor. This is the principal reason I agreed to the Davis request to try to arrange such a debate. But political consultants of any party seldom suffer malpractice suits for counseling caution. And I doubt Davis would do this, but there is a chance that Davis would turn the event into a mud bath that would diminish the process and the governorship no matter who ended up holding the office. With many unanswered questions about what exactly the leading contender, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would do in office, we move forward to October 7. Judgment Day.


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