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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Battle for California: Political Circus Begins

Aired August 11, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But first, the battle for California and what some see as a political circus leading up to the California recall election.
The California secretary of state said today that 195 candidates in all have filed papers to run for governor in the October 7 election. But right now, as the campaign takes shape, it looks as if it may all come down to just two of them: the current governor, Gray Davis, and the Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The latest CNN/"USA Today"/ Gallup poll shows 42 percent of registered voters in California say there is a good chance they would vote for Schwarzenegger while 64 percent say Davis should be removed from office. But can Schwarzenegger's numbers stay high, especially if there his opponents continue to hammer away at what they say is his lack of substance?

I'm joined now by the former California Governor Pete Wilson. He's also the co-chairman of Schwarzenegger's campaign.

Governor, thanks very much for joining us. What happens when he has to come out and take some substantive positions, for example, on abortion rights for women, gun control, gay rights, civil marriages? This is going to alienate a big base of the Republican conservative community out in California.

PETE WILSON (R), FMR. CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR: You know something, Wolf? I took positions that were not popular and yet my base were people who styled themselves as conservatives. And we also won independents and Democrats.

I see a great similarity between the positions that I took and those that I think will be announced by the candidate. But obviously it is his prerogative to announce them and on his own schedule. But I also see very great similarity between him and another outsider who brought great leadership, not just to the state, but to the nation, another actor and someone who was undergoing the same criticism when he was running for governor.

BLITZER: There are other Republicans as you well know, Governor Wilson, on that ballot, including some who were much more conservative on some of these social issues. There is only one real Democrat, Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, on that ballot. Are you concerned that the Republican conservative vote will be split up amongst a bunch of Republicans, whereas the Democrats will have one home, if, in fact, Governor Gray Davis goes down to defeat? WILSON I am somewhat concerned. But the numbers that we're seeing now indicate that the appeal that Schwarzenegger has reaches across party lines. He's getting a very marked support from Republicans as well as from independents and a significant number of Democrats. That's how a Republican wins in this state.

And you can do it by being to the right of center. You can make sense. You can be for sensible things, be as he's described himself, a fiscal conservative, and a social moderate. That has been a winning formula. You have to mean it, not just tailor -- tailor your position with your finger in the wind. But this is someone who has thought about things and over the next seven weeks, which, by the way is longer than most general election campaigns in states like New York, most states, I think, and longer than the British parliamentary election season. We will be allowing him to tell the public his position on substantive matters of great importance to them and it will be sufficient so that over the seven weeks people will know where he stands. I hope his opponents will that be clear.

BLITZER: Governor Wilson, what about the whole role that President Bush might play in this campaign? We heard him say the other day in Crawford that Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a good governor. Do you want the president, who's coming -- coming into California in the coming days to actively go out there and campaign on behalf of Arnold Schwarzenegger?

WILSON: Well, whether I want it or not, it isn't going to happen. The president is here for his own reasons, his own purposes. That's his privilege, his right. The fact of the matter is the White House has stayed as far away from the recall as they can possibly get. There are other Republicans in the race. They don't want to interfere in what they rightly regard as a statewide concern, something that should be decided by Californians.

I was pleased to hear the president express the view that he thought Arnold work a good governor, but he said he didn't want to arm wrestle him.

BLITZER: I don't think a lot of people want to arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger.

WILSON: Not too many takers on that.

BLITZER: Thanks very much,the former governor of California Pete Wilson, for joining us.

It's been nearly a week since Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was, in fact, running for governor. But so far he's playing it very close to the vest when it comes to any specifics about his platform. Is he ready to be a real political candidate?

I'm joined now by two guests, the author and Republican commentator Ann Coulter. She's the author of the current best-seller "Treason."

And with us from Washington tonight, Peter Beinart. He's the editor of "The New Republic."

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Ann Coulter, first to you. What do you make of this candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, effectively being the frontrunner right now, but having taken virtually no substantive positions so far?

ANN COULTER, AUTHOR, "TREASON": I think the urge to get him to come out with more specifics is a little misplaced. I mean, Gray Davis has been governor for five years and the media hasn't been demanding that he produce any specifics on what he's going to do about the $38 billion deficit he's been feverishly building. What's his plan?

BLITZER: You feel comfortable with his positions on some of these social issues like abortions, rights for women, gay rights, gun control?

COULTER: I've heard rumors that he's very liberal on all of those. And no, I don't want him to be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. But this is for a state that is about to sink into the ocean that we, you know, may have to sell to Mexico at a discount.

They need someone to be a fiscal conservative and from everything he says, he must be conservative on something. He's a Hollywood actor. He's married to the Kennedy family and he calls himself a Republican. He must be a fiscal conservative as he keeps saying. That's really all this state needs.

BLITZER: He's almost like a Rockefeller or Jacob Javitz kind of liberal Republican, isn't he?

COULTER: I'm not sure. I think if he is a genuinely fiscal conservative, and from the things he said about Gray Davis and what the problems are, the problems are that spending is insane. It's out of control. They have mammoth pensions for government workers. Gray Davis has essentially bought the votes of government works.

And if Arnold wants to run for the job, I assume he has a plan to fix it up. And there's only one way -- well, two ways. You either raise taxes and go down in history as the most hated man in California history or you cut spending. So I think he's going cut spending.

BLITZER: Let me bring Peter Beinart of "The New Republic" in.

Peter, wouldn't this be good for country to get a liberal wing of the Republican Party in power in California?

PETER BEINHART, EDITOR, "NEW REPUBLIC": I think it would cause problems for the Republican Party. There's no question about it. Because the only kind of Republican who can win in California is probably one who is socially liberal.

But with all due respect to Ann, the notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a true fiscal conservative is a joke, because what has he done so far? He pushed through this ballot initiative that required the state of California to spend all of this new money on after school programs, perfectly worthy goal that it doesn't -- that it clearly doesn't have. It's way in deficit. So the idea that this guy is a fiscal conservative is also ridiculous. The only thing we know about him is that he's a big budget buster.

BLITZER: Ann Coulter, do you want to respond?

COULTER: Well, you could be right. We have 60 days. Everyone keeps saying this is so quick, this is so quick. How do we know what he's going to stand for and we won't have time to find out. Sixty days is about as long as most Americans pay attention to presidential election. I suppose we'll find out. I'm saying that from what he has in his attacks on Gray Davis, the fact that he goes around calling himself a fiscal conservative -- he cites Milton....

(CROSSTALK)

COULTER: I'm just saying that's good enough for me. If it's true, you could well be right.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You know, Peter, I was going say, normally when people with high visibility profiles come into politics, they usually start off pretty high, but then once they're forced to take specific positions on controversial issues, their popularity slips.

BEINHART: That's right. And that's why it's likely that this is the high point of the Schwarzenegger campaign.

The reason is people who are outside of politics are appealing precisely because they're not politicians. They're antipolitical. People like that, because they don't like politicians. Then, when you have to run for something, you start sounding like -- guess what? -- a politician. And that appeal, that allure of being outside of politics tends to fade. Not to mention that you have to define yourself and people realize they're against some of the things that you're for.

So I would be surprised if Schwarzenegger didn't really start to fall. I don't even think he's necessarily going to be the Republican that gets the most votes this fall in California.

BLITZER: Is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ann Coulter, another Ronald Reagan in the making?

COULTER: Oh, not at all. No, not close. But he may be best that California can get.

BLITZER: He is, by all accounts, very intelligent. He's parlayed an acting career into becoming a multi, multimillionaire -- made -- what? -- $30 million last year, gave $4 million to charities. You got to have some substance there.

COULTER: I agree with that. I am not one of the Republicans who opposes him, though he is clearly not my kind of Republican. I don't think I want him in the United States Senate. I don't think I would want him in many positions. But frankly, I don't know why any politician would want that job right now. I mean, it's just a disaster that state.

BLITZER: Peter, are you ready to write off Gray Davis already?

BEINHART: No, I don't think so. You know, we don't have a lot of experience with recalls. But if you think recalls are like initiatives and referendums, what you tend to see is that over time, support for the status quo position, the no vote, tends to increase over time as voters kind of take a -- I'll stick with the devil I know position.

Now we don't know how this is going to turn out. But I wouldn't be surprised at all if as we get closer to this, particularly as it continues to look like a carnival, if voters, even though they dislike Gray Davis, don't look towards a no vote on the recall.

BLITZER: And by all account, Ann Coulter, Gray Davis is going to get some help from two people that you know quite well. Not necessarily personally, but you've studied them for a long time, namely the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and the junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton. They come in there, campaign for Gray Davis, encourage people to vote no for that recall, that could help.

COULTER: I think that cinches the recall.

No, I think now that Jerry Springer is polling at .00001 percent, the era of degenerate buffoonery is over. I do not think the Clintons' support is going to help.

BLITZER: What do you think, Peter?

Well, you know, it's funny. Again, you know, social conservatives certainly seem not to be concerned at all about the fact that Arnold has admitted he was on steroids for years. They have a little bit of a selective moral judgment on these questions.

Look, the Clintons are very popular in California. The Democrats -- the unions are very strong in California. I think that there's a decent chance that Davis will not be recalled. And I would put money right now on Cruz Bustamante because there will be a split in the Republican vote, and Bustamante has a strong base among hardcore Democrats and Latinos.

BLITZER: I think that last point he makes, that the Republican vote could be split, because there are three or four serious Republicans on the ballot but only one serious Democrat, Cruz Bustamante, that could be the ace in the hole for the Democrats.

COULTER: I think that will not happen. And I'm glad the Republicans are on -- have their names there just in case something happens to Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I doubt it will. I think he will be the next governor. But if there is some scandal where he drops out or something, I'm glad there are two serious great Republicans on the ballot. But I think they will drop out, because if they stay on and cost us getting rid of Bustamante and Gray Davis, their political futures will be over. Simon and McClintock, in a few months, I think are going to have to drop off.

BLITZER: We're going to watch it very closely. I'm sure Ann Coulter will as well -- Peter Beinhart -- thanks to both of you for joining us.

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