The Blog

Collateral Damage

With two weeks to go and the debate looming, Arnold goes negative on Davis, Bustamante--and McClintock.

12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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GO FIGURE. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals not only overturns last week's recall delay in less than 24 hours, but does so by unanimous consent--a slam dunk with a shattered backboard. Recall is now set for two Tuesdays from today, which means a record number of Californians will tune in to tonight's debate in Sacramento.

If the Ninth Circuit's decision was an ironic twist--a liberal court sticking it to the ACLU--so was the tactical decision by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only optimist with a chance of winning recall, to go negative on his competition.

On Monday, Arnold began airing a statewide television ad blasting unnamed recall candidates for taking donations from "Indian casino tribes." Translation: don't waste your vote on Cruz Bustamante or Tom McClintock. The ad opens with the image of a slot machine dial and Arnold's voice: "Indian casino tribes play money politics in Sacramento: $120 million in the last 5 years." He adds: "All the other major candidates take their money and pander to them. I don't play that game. Give me your vote, and I guarantee you things will change."

At the same time, Team Schwarzenegger launched a separate 30-second spot against Gray Davis--this one, with a more vox populi feel to it. The ad opens with a woman telling viewers: "Well, if we gotta change California then we gotta change our governor." A man adds: "Gray Davis's fiscal mismanagement alone is a reason to recall him." And it closes with this line: "The people are sick and tired of the way Gray Davis is mismanaging this great state of ours."

Schwarzenegger's assault on Davis makes sense. With the other recall committees out of money and off the air, the governor has gone unchallenged in making the case against the first question on the ballot--his ouster. Indeed, Davis has made the most of that situation by running anti-recall ads day and night. Not surprisingly, Davis's numbers have improved over the past month, though not as dramatically as he'd like (recall still leads, 53 percent to 42 percent, in the latest survey by the Progressive Policy Institute of California; a month ago it was 58 percent to 36 percent). Arnold, by tapping into his Total Recall Committee to underwrite the cost of the anti-Davis ad, changes that dynamic by putting the governor back on the defensive.

It's the indirect attack on McClintock that's more of a puzzler. Was the intent to distinguish Schwarzenegger as the only non-tribe candidate--the guy with the strongest ethics? (Arnold's not exactly a puritan--he did receive $62,000 from tribes for last year's Proposition 49.) Or is it meant to drive up Bustamante's negatives? Or is it designed to peel away Republican votes from McClintock, the Thousand Oaks conservative who's locked in third place and refuses to leave the race? The recall media are convinced the latter's the case, which unfortunately makes it--and Arnold's forensic debut--the dominant story lines going into tonight's debate.

And unfortunately for California Republicans, that's a repeat of a very tired story: The party can't rally behind one candidate, and by diving the vote seems poised to give away the election.

IN CALIFORNIA, the media can't get enough of Republican in-fighting. And in recent days the Schwarzenegger-McClintock rivalry hasn't disappointed, as the situation has gone from subtle rift to outright feud. On Monday--the same day Arnold's ads hit the airwaves--McClintock was invited to breakfast at the Sacramento Bee. He trashed one of Arnold's campaign co-chairs, former Governor Pete Wilson ("one of the worst governors in our state's history"), and played a little guilt by association by suggesting the candidate has "surrounded himself with the team that produced the biggest tax increase in the state's history . . . a tax increase that broke the back of our economy and turned a recession in to a near depression."

That was preceded over the weekend by a McClintock letter to supporters looking for $800,000 to make a media buy. The state senator suggested to his loyalists that California history was repeating itself, that he was Ronald Reagan refusing to step aside for a more moderate Republican (San Francisco Mayor George Christopher) during the 1966 governor's race. "Reagan declined. The rest is history," McClintock wrote. "Did Reagan stay in because of blind personal ambition? I think not! I believe Ronald Reagan felt it would be wrong to walk away from his principles and from those who believed as he did in those same principles."