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Bandwagon or Meatwagon?

The Schwarzenegger campaign is finally getting that feeling of inevitability. The only thing that could derail it would be some kind of bombshell. Oops.

8:45 AM, Oct 2, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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THIS IS THE FACE of momentum and confidence (maybe too much so), six days before an election: Arnold Schwarzenegger, standing before a few hundred fans and advisors, a few hundred yards from the state Capitol, saying what he'll do in the first 100 days after he takes the oath of governor. Not if he's elected next Tuesday--when he's elected. "We are ready to take office," the Terminator declared yesterday. "We are ready to take action. We are ready to return California to the people."

Like so many political events involving the world-renowned actor, there wasn't any huge news value in what Arnold discussed--just a 10-point plan he called "an agenda for governing." It wasn't the first time the candidate had pledged to repeal the recent tripling of the state's car tax, to audit the state budget, or to call a special session of the legislature to make spending cuts. (Arnold did break ground by saying he'd insist upon quarterly reports on the state's financial health, and he resisted advice to push for a two-year budget.) But all of that means little to a recall press that hangs on the man's every utterance. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success in life is merely showing up; the same could be said for Arnold's media strategy.

Then again, substance doesn't matter much at this point in recall. It's all about style and symbolism down the homestretch. Arnold gave his "100 days" speech at the same Sacramento Memorial Auditorium where Davis first took the oath of office. (Subtle, huh? The "I'll be back" line just writes itself.) And in this kind of pose-off, no other recall participant can match Arnold Schwarzenegger's flex appeal.

Weeks ago, the Terminator kick-started his flagging campaign by hiring Mike Murphy, the veteran Republican consultant most famous for John McCain's maverick presidential bid. Arnold will now finish off recall with a decidedly McCainiac flourish. This morning, he embarks from San Diego on a four-day, six-bus caravan across California (the "California Comeback Express"). The itinerary: San Diego, Costa Mesa, San Bernardino, and Universal City today; San Gabriel, Santa Clarita, Bakersfield, and Fresno tomorrow; Fresno, Modesto, San Francisco East Bay, and Sacramento on Saturday; a finale at the state Capitol Sunday afternoon.

A word of caution about campaigns and California bus tours: Back in the 1994 governor's race, Democrat Kathleen Brown drove east-to-west and north-to-south in a last-ditch effort to resuscitate her campaign. All she improved was the reputation of Dan Schnur, a Pete Wilson spokesman who put out one of the all-time devastating pieces of campaign literature: "The Kathleen Brown Bataan Death March Bus Trip." Schnur not only detailed Brown's every foible and contradiction along the 29-hour trek, but armed reporters with a "survival kit" (a box of Sominex, a bottle of vodka, a packet of BC headache powder, a roll of Tums, a pair of earplugs, and a set of Wilson endorsement editorials).

Will Democrats make the same mischief at Arnold's expense, now that he too has gone Greyhound? Don't bet on it. Reporters hated the Brown ride; they'll love being a part of Ground Arnold, which stacks up as the most surreal bus experience since Cosmo Kramer's "Peterman Reality Tour." Besides, there's something about this particular excursion that's so Arnold and recall in how it blends politics and pop culture. All the buses have a movie theme: Arnold's aboard "Running Man"; his supporters are riding in "Total Recall"; the press is tucked away on three "Predator' buses, plus a fourth called "True Lies." Obviously, someone was paying attention. The tagline to the movie "Predator" was: "Nothing like it has ever been on earth before. It came for the thrill of the hunt. It picked the wrong man to hunt." And for "The Running Man": "A game nobody survives, but Schwarzenegger has yet to play".

Team Arnold is smart enough to understand that this will be the most closely watched freeway event in California since a certain white Bronco took off nine years ago. And, in this case, four days on a bus (Arnold will do a final fly-around on Monday) makes great political sense. With the exception of the San Francisco East Bay, which hasn't been too kind to Republicans of late, Arnold is motoring through parts of California where he can reach out to GOP loyalists and independent voters open to his outsider message. I read that as Arnold seeking more than a victory. Perhaps the real goal is to run up the score next Tuesday so as claim a mandate (the key number here: 3,533,490--that's how many votes Gray Davis got last November, and the number Arnold could achieve if he gets more than 40 percent of the vote in what should be a better-attended recall).