Senior Democratic strategists knew the particulars of last Thursday’s L.A. Times exposé on Arnold Schwarzenegger well in advance of the story’s publication, the Weekly has learned from well-informed sources. This knowledge came not only in advance of publication but also before anyone outside a close circle at the Times knew of the story’s timing and particulars.

While the Times insists that its reporting uncovered the allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Schwarzenegger, there can be no doubt that advance knowledge of the story was very helpful to Governor Gray Davis’ efforts to retain his office in the recall election.

Meanwhile, Sunday-night tracking polls seem to show the recall and Schwarzenegger running well ahead. Schwarzenegger strategists say their tracking poll shows the recall with a lead in the low double digits, and Schwarzenegger nearly 10 points ahead of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante on the replacement portion of the ballot.

Top strategists for the governor were not available, and Davis spokesman Roger Salazar says he knows no Sunday-night polling numbers from the governor’s campaign.

Back to the blockbuster hit on Schwarzenegger in Thursday’s Times. According to a well-informed source at the paper, the story, which hit the political world with a thunderclap, never appeared on the paper’s internal or external publication schedules. Indeed, project editor Joel Sappell and the three reporters working on what the Times has described as a seven-week-long investigative project were very tight-lipped about both the scheduling of the piece and its contents. They discussed the story only with the paper’s senior editors. Although the story did not appear on the schedule, it was reportedly placed in the “write basket,” in which other Times editors and reporters can look at upcoming pieces, after hours last Wednesday night, just a few hours before it appeared on the Times Web site.

Even with utmost secrecy surrounding the piece, senior Democratic strategists with long-standing ties to Davis knew not only when the story was coming but also the particulars of what was in it. These strategists felt that the story held the possibility of tipping the election away from Schwarzenegger and of defeating the governor’s recall.

Calls to Times editors on the internal scheduling and handling of the story were referred to the newspaper’s public-relations department. Times spokesman David Garcia said the story was extremely closely held and not shared “with anyone outside the building.”

Whether or not the Times received all or part of the story from pro-Davis sources — and the Times continues to vociferously insist that none of the first story, at least, did — the advance knowledge of the story’s timing and particulars enabled Davis and the Democrats to design the closing burst of the anti-recall campaign, which we have seen unfold with an uncanny precision.

I had been very impressed with the alacrity with which Davis and the Democrats seized on the Times story and swiftly pivoted into all-out attack mode. A flurry of press statements and highly coordinated events and advertising involving politicians across the state and in Washington, D.C., ensued. It was remarkably efficient. But if you know what is coming in the news flow and when it is coming, it is much easier to design the close of your campaign.

Incidentally, the paper Monday backed off its previous contention that none of the women in subsequent stories came forward at the urging of Schwarzenegger’s opponents in the wake of the Weekly’s revelation that Jodie Evans, who pushed one of the women to come forward, is not merely the peace activist described by the Times but also a former close colleague of Governor Davis and longtime friend of chief Democratic hit man Bob Mulholland.

In another intriguing bit of Times reporting, Schwarzenegger’s huge rally Sunday outside the state Capitol was not referenced until the 18th paragraph of Monday’s story. The rally was twice as large as the 5,000 people reported by the Times. Of course, observers can vary in crowd estimates. But another element of the reportage was very strange.

“Protesters nearly drowned out the early part of Schwarzenegger’s nine-minute speech with a steady chorus of boos,” the Times reported today.

Viewing from the press riser with most of the rest of the press corps, I didn’t hear the protesters. They certainly didn’t drown out Schwarzenegger.

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