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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Debating debates

From John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

Sunset Boulevard: A billboard against the California recall election looms over traffic as five top candidates and Gov. Gray Davis prepare for Wednesday night's debate.
Sunset Boulevard: A billboard against the California recall election looms over traffic as five top candidates and Gov. Gray Davis prepare for Wednesday night's debate.

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Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger countered charges that he's ducking debates in the California recall campaign. CNN's Kelly Wallace reports (September 3)
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California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger said he looks forward to one 'fantastic debate' scheduled for late September. CNN's Rusty Dornin reports (September 2)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- We turn our thoughts today to California, where five top recall candidates and Gov. Gray Davis travel to Walnut Creek for the EveryoneButArnold debate, an old-school face-off in which participants first hear the questions when the moderator poses them. Go figure.

But even before the two-hour event kicks off at 7 p.m. EDT, there are rumblings that Schwarzenegger will be roasted in absentia.

One sure line of attack -- revelations that the California Broadcasters Association, which is sponsoring the only forum Schwarzenegger will participate in, plans to release every debate question one week before their September 24 forum. Schwarzenegger "does great -- if he has a script," an aide to Republican Tom McClintock quipped to CNN yesterday.

Schwarzenegger also came under fire yesterday from Republican Peter Ueberroth's "100 percent positive" campaign. As part of his tireless (but uphill) battle to turn Ueberroth into John McCain, spokesman Dan Schnur said Arnold would suffer the same fate George W. Bush did in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, after he skipped two debates. McCain, of course, trounced Bush in New Hampshire.

"If Bush had attended the first two New Hampshire debates, McCain never would have broken 10 percent," said Schnur, who worked for McCain in 2000. "When a front-running candidate skips the debate, it provides an opportunity for other candidates. But more importantly, it impacts the way other voters view the candidate who doesn't attend."

"Every story about the debate will not only mention, but will lead, with the fact that Arnold did not participate," he added.

Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll agreed.

"Just look at what [Schwarzenegger's] vulnerabilities are in our polls. The main problem people have with him is that he hasn't served in public office and because of that people are concerned that he doesn't have what it takes to be governor," he said. "A debate could put those fears to rest, but by not [debating], he's almost playing into the stereotype that he's not ready, and that he's not ready for political office."

Indeed, in the latest Field poll, conducted in mid-August, 41 percent of respondents said they were less inclined to vote for Schwarzenegger because "he has not served in any kind of political office before."

Only 14 percent said they were "more inclined" to vote for him because of that. Schwarzenegger's lack of political experience swayed far more voters to oppose him than any other characteristic DiCamillo surveyed.

Of course, there looms the possibility that today's debate will be overshadowed by Arnold's own plan to deliver a "major, thematic" speech at Cal State-Long Beach and, possibly, take questions afterwards from reporters. He's scheduled to give his speech, which should last about 20 minutes, at 4 p.m. EDT.

Today's debate, sponsored by the San Francisco-area TV station (and CNN affiliate) KTVU, KQED Radio and the Contra Costa Times, is scheduled to take place tonight from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. to 9 p.m. EDT) at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Davis has been invited to speak and appear alone, answering questions from a panel of reporters for the first 30 minutes. The next 90 minutes will consist of a debate among five candidates on Question 2 -- Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Peter Camejo, Arianna Huffington, Tom McClintock and Peter Ueberroth.

C-SPAN has been granted the right to air the program live, and Steve Scully assured us he'll do so on either C-SPAN or C-SPAN-2 (depending on the House schedule).

'Special Interest'

Also today, Schwarzenegger goes up with his second TV commercial, this one called "Special Interest." In the 15-second ad, Schwarzenegger says, "Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento. Here's how it works: Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message. Game over. If you want to change this state, then join me."

Schwarzenegger, of course, opposes something called "special interests." But he recently clarified that he has no problem taking money from "powerful interests."

Check this out: "I get donations from business and individuals, absolutely," he said this week. "They're powerful interests who control things."


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