LOS ANGELES - Newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington withdrew from the California gubernatorial recall election and, in a surprise move, reversed position and encouraged her supporters to oppose the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
The move was a direct slap at movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, the GOP front-runner, whom she has characterized as a puppet of “Bush Republicans” such as former Gov. Pete Wilson.
The move also mirrored Mr. Schwarzenegger's entry into the race when he announced his candidacy on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Ms. Huffington announced that she is leaving the race on CNN's Larry King Live.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger is a charming man. He's a nice man, but really he has no idea how to run a state,” Ms. Huffington told CNN talk-show host Larry King in the nationally televised interview. “He's going to be run by the very forces that basically have destroyed so much of California,” she said, “the very forces that really brought us the energy deregulation, the workers' comp deregulation - the Wilson party.”
Her withdrawal from the race a week before the election was not unexpected. It was just a question of where she would throw her support, which has not broken 3 percent in polls.
Ms. Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo had a pact that, if one of them had a shot at winning the election this late in the game, the other would step aside to clear the way. They appeal to many of the same voters with their support of social programs and of closing tax loopholes for corporations and the rich. But neither campaign caught fire, and Mr. Camejo made clear after the nationally televised candidates' debate last week that he had no intention of withdrawing.
She had previously spoken of possibly endorsing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, whom she has also publicly criticized for accepting millions in campaign contributions from American Indian gaming interests. But last night she stopped short of asking supporters to vote for the lieutenant governor in the event that Governor Davis is recalled, although she left open the door to do so.
A Los Angeles Times poll yesterday showed Mr. Schwarzenegger with support from 40 percent of likely voters, with 32 percent for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Ms. Huffington's best hope of defeating the Republican is to help Governor Davis defeat the recall itself.
“I understand why independents are drawn to Schwarzenegger because they are fed up with the current system,” she said. “The key issue is controlling the budget, and Schwarzenegger has offered no proposals to balance the budget.”
Her maneuver - yet another strange turn in a strange election - is not going to make a difference unless the recall question is extremely close. The same Times poll showed the recall succeeding by 56 percent of respondents supporting Governor Davis' removal from office. The recall campaign was sparked by Republicans dissatisfied with the governor's handling of state finances and energy issues.
But the Davis campaign has said its own internal polls showed that the recall question would be much closer. “Two to 3 percent could make a difference,” Davis spokesman Gabriel Sanchez said. “It's 50 percent plus one. Everything counts. We're close.”
Ms. Huffington did not inform the Davis campaign in advance of her intent to send it her support on national TV.
Mr. Schwarzenegger yesterday campaigned in San Francisco and formally adopted the hard-rock Twisted Sisters' song, “We're Not Going to Take It,” as his campaign anthem.
Mr. Davis and Mr. Bustamante, who are not personally close, campaigned apart in Los Angeles. In California, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately.
Ms. Huffington, a former conservative before becoming a strident populist columnist, author, and television commentator, clashed with Mr. Schwarzenegger in his one and only debate appearance last Wednesday. When Mr. Schwarzenegger kept interrupting her criticism of him, she scolded: “This is impolite. This is the way you treat women. We know that.”
Mr. Schwarzenegger replied: “I would just like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4.”
“Explaining Arianna is like explaining Madonna,” said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles. “It's always, `Look at me.'”
This report includes information from the Associated Press.