LOS ANGELES - Apparently putting the “circus” behind it, California's historic gubernatorial recall election has taken on the look of a more traditional campaign fought on the TV airwaves as it goes into the home stretch.
In a hard-hitting ad, Gov. Gray Davis made it clear he believes movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest threat to his continued incumbency.
“Why can't Arnold Schwarzenegger get his facts straight?” asks the narrator in the anti-recall spot. “He has no experience, won't answer press questions, won't debate unless he has the questions in advance, and didn't even bother to vote in 13 of the last 21 elections.”
The move cemented the perception that Mr. Schwarzenegger had emerged from last week's debate with the most momentum going into the Oct. 7 election.
In the days following the debate, a majority of county Republican Party leaders and several high-profile conservatives have endorsed the social moderate in hopes of luring back conservatives who prefer state Sen. Tom McClintock.
Mr. Davis' spokesman, Gabriel Sanchez, said the latest anti-recall ad is a recognition that the Republican establishment is indeed coalescing. But he insisted the ad does not undermine Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the Democrats' only chance of holding onto the governor's mansion if Mr. Davis is recalled. The two men, elected separately, have had an icy relationship.
“The governor's focus is on defeating the recall, and that has been Mr. Bustamante's focus too, beating the recall,” said Mr. Sanchez. “I don't think we're undermining anything. We're challenging Mr. Schwarzenegger to get his facts straight and talk about the issues. These aren't personal attacks.”
A CNN-USA Today Gallup poll released yesterday indicated that 63 percent of voters would recall the governor. Forty percent of those polled would back Mr. Schwarzenegger to replace him compared to just 25 percent for Mr. Bustamante and 18 percent for Mr. McClintock.
That means that Mr. Bustamante, running short of campaign cash, hasn't been able to hold onto the 35 percent of voters who say they'll vote against recalling Mr. Davis.
The emergence of Mr. Schwarzenegger as clear front-runner was made more evident by Mr. Davis' challenge to Mr. Schwarzenegger to a debate. The challenge fizzled when the actor declined. The two are technically not running against each other .
Mr. Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Sean Walsh, disputed Mr. Davis' contention that the actor is misleading voters about his record. “Gray Davis' latest ad can't hide the fact that on his watch, California went from a $10 billion surplus to a $38 billion deficit,” he said. “It can't hide the fact that on his watch, California's economy has gone from growing to ailing. And it can't hide the fact that California's credit rating has gone from healthy to one step above junk-bond status.”
Mr. Davis has countered that the $38 billion projected budget shortfall was corrected with the new budget enacted two months ago, although budget analysts have predicted a current hole approaching $10 billion in the new plan.
After weeks of general ads criticizing the economic shape of the state, Mr. Schwarzenegger has a multi-million-dollar ad buy directly attacking Mr. Davis, Mr. Bustamante, and Mr. McClintock, without mentioning their names. He links them with what has emerged as the ultimate “special interest” in this election, Indian tribe gaming interests.
“All the other major candidates take their money and pander to them,” Mr. Schwarzenegger tells his TV audience in a tight close-up. “I don't play that game.”