The Blog

Proving a Negative

A look inside the numbers shows that Arnold's negatives are surprisingly high. Plus: One of Gray Davis's former flames speaks out in defense of the embattled governor.

8:00 AM, Aug 19, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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THE LATEST from the Left Coast: Bill Simon has taken out radio ads attacking Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reportedly will start running TV ads as early as Wednesday. On the Democratic side, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, also a candidate to replace Gray Davis, claims that the governor's henchmen are trying to squelch donations to his campaign.

Davis, meanwhile, has received an unexpected boost--more like a testosterone shot--from an unlikely source: the actress Cybill Shepherd, who bared her soul to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The report, verbatim:

Shepherd told The Chronicle that the governor is "a good kisser." At least he was 36 years ago, when they first met in Hawaii. Shepherd, the star of TV's "Moonlighting" and "Cybill," was a 16-year-old on a trip with her parents, and Davis was working a summer job at a travel company.

Shepherd said she was smitten almost immediately, as she saw the young Gray--eight years her senior--dressed in a decidedly nontropical blue blazer over a gray T-shirt. Not only was the future governor striking, she said, "but he was so smart. He always treated me like an intellectual equal."

Shepherd's father wasn't so happy when they "made out passionately on the beach. We were covered with sand, but we were never lovers," she said.

But wait, there's more . . .

They fell out of touch until the mid-1980s, when Shepherd received a pot holder in the mail--a knickknack from Davis' Assembly campaign. And now, she feels so upset about the recall election that--unsolicited by Davis operatives--she said, "I feel like holding a press conference."

"He is a wonderful man, and he's served this state well," Shepherd said. "Just because he doesn't speak with the charisma of John Kennedy, people want to recall him."

Let's set aside the visual of a 24-year-old future governor in a remake of "From Here to Eternity" with a 16-year minor (no Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr they). The real story here: Davis left the poor girl with a broken heart and a crummy pot holder, yet she's still a fan. If Gray can placate Cybill, maybe he can charm his way out of being recalled.

Speaking of charm, Arnold's handlers have a challenge ahead of them. In the last Field Poll, the Terminator received a 44 percent positive rating, and a 40 percent negative rating (the same negative as his co-frontrunner, Bustamante). Why so high a negative? That's a good question--one that Arnold hopes can be answered by his chief strategist George Gorton, who specializes in figuring out the mind of the California voter.

Arnold for Governor will be fought on land, in the air(waves), and by sea. But the real heavy lifting--figuring where the man is vulnerable--will occur in out-of-the way hamlets in the San Fernando Valley, Sacramento, and Contra Costa County, which is east of San Francisco. There, small focus groups of "average" Californians will be asked for their impressions of Arnold. This includes word association. It involves watching videotape of the candidate. And it entails listening to different messages. It's from such meetings that campaign themes and TV ads emerge.

In Arnold's case, the question is why the high negatives so early in the race? Is it his outsized personality, or his body of work? Are voters not comfortable with an actor running state government in general, or Arnold in particular?

A glimpse at the last Field Poll doesn't offer many clues. The survey asked 17 questions of California voters, to get a better fix on the Arnold effect in recall. Here's a link and a condensed version of how "all voters" responded.

In Arnold's favor, people seemed moved by his success, massive fortune, and sponsorship of Proposition 49 (which expanded state after-school programs.) But they seemed hesitant about his lack of political experience and the allegations of extramarital affairs which have surrounded him. Californians were ambivalent--equal parts more and less inclined--on Arnold's marriage to a Kennedy Democrat, his Republican label, his opposition to Bill Clinton's impeachment and his support of the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 back in 1994.

We'll see this week how Team Arnold interprets these findings, or if they have their own set of numbers. Will the first Arnold TV spot be a positive spot touting his credentials as an outsider, an entrepreneur, and a force of nature? Will he actually utter the word "Republican" in any ad? And what about Maria? Can't do a family spot without her, but is she a co-star or part of the supporting cast?

For that matter, what about Cybill Shepard? Maybe her revelation of Gray as make-out artist fires up the Democratic base. Whatever it takes, to prevent recall from becoming "The Last Picture Show" for her summer fling.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.