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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 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.

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 she’d 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 ain’t 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 Huffington’s
turn came, she started talking about fighting the Bush administration, noting
the costly repeal of the estate tax, then said, “It’s completely hypocritical
of Arnold to come here.”

Schwarzenegger interjected, “Arianna, we’re 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
Huffington’s 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.

 

It’s 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 ex–Mr.
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 Schwarzenegger’s character briefly stuffs a female terminator’s
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 didn’t
know that the quip meant he wanted to shove her face in a toilet. But she was
still offended, especially by Schwarzenegger’s interruptions of her, a common
practice by Huffington herself in this and other debates. She might also be
offended by Bustamante’s 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 ex–bodybuilder.

[

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
Schwarzenegger’s 1977 Oui magazine musings about group sex constituted
“rape,” told reporters that the T4 quip would dominate the closing days
of the campaign.

Not likely.

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 couldn’t 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.”