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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 October, 2003, 06:33 GMT 07:33 UK
US diary: California recall
BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei
By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

In the second of a series of regular columns, Matt Frei gives his own perspective on the California recall election.

No longer content just to deliver other people's lines, many Hollywood stars aspire at some stage in their career to become directors, producers or writers.

Perhaps that's what Arnold Schwarzenegger is really up to - only he has chosen politics!

Let's face it, celebrity is what this election was all about.

Diane Keaton at a rally with Gray Davis
Actress Diane Keaton turned out for an anti-recall rally
California is merely applying the guiding principal of its public life to the one area that had almost miraculously been spared it - politics.

It always seemed odd that this star-struck state should elect a governor, Gray Davis, who embodied the antithesis of charisma.

I met Mr Davis at his final rally in San Francisco on Monday. His campaign had mobilised the one union that every American politician wants on his or her side after 9/11 - the firefighters.

Hundreds of burly men with gravelly voices and knuckle-breaking handshakes donned silly 'No recall' T-shirts, and marched towards Union Square.

In their midst, the reed-like governor with his tapering features and bloodless complexion looked like a blanched twig floating amongst logs. His high-fives seemed self conscious and contrived. I feared for his delicate hands.

No-one in the square shouted his name. In fact his name was almost taboo, the mere mention of which would bring out the recall demons. Instead they all yelled: "No to the recall".

"Why?" I asked some of the firefighters. "Surely Arnie is your kind of man?"

"Arnie is a squillionaire," came the response from the gravel-voiced chorus. "With his plans to cut taxes and spending he is bound to take away our jobs."

Who knows? Arnie has played his economic cards very close to his well-toned chest.

Antidote

"Not a bad turnout," I told an old friend I bumped into at Union Square. She is the bureau chief for Newsweek in San Francisco.

Arnie is also pro-choice, not anti-gay and he is married to a Kennedy - this makes him very acceptable to mainstream Californians
She pointed out that if it hadn't been for the firefighters, the square would be almost deserted apart from a few tourists and office workers sipping their lattes.

This is the heartland of Democratic America where almost no-one voted for George W Bush in 2000. They should have been hanging from lampposts and balconies to support their man. And they were not.

Gray Davis is the antidote to California celebrity, but he has also neglected his electoral base and presided over the mismanagement of the Golden State.

So why didn't he get thrown out 11 months ago at the mid-term elections? Simple answer - he was running against a Republican Party that was divided and had slipped too far to the right for the taste of moderate, mainstream Californians.

Today Ronald Reagan may be the hero of the Republican right but as governor of California he enacted the most pro-choice legislation the state had ever seen.

Dream card

This is where Arnie comes in.

OK, his lines may be wooden and his smile trapped in an ecstatic Hollywood rictus. But on paper, the terminator was as much a dream candidate for the Republicans as former General, Wesley Clark, is for the Democrats in the presidential race.

Arnie looks like a red meat-devouring barbarian, but he is also pro-choice, not anti-gay and he is married to a Kennedy.

This makes him unacceptable to most Bible-bashing Republicans from the south, but very acceptable to mainstream Californians.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and Republican party members
Schwarzenegger has a cross-section of support
In the White House, they still haven't made up their minds if an Arnie victory in the most populous state, and one with the largest number of electoral college votes, is a good thing because it reverses the terminal decline of the Republican Party in California or bad because it dilutes the Dixie-fication of the Grand Old Party, the GOP.

I went to Arnie's last rally in an aircraft hanger for executive jets at San Jose airport. The fact it had been booked by a recall campaign instead of Silicon Valley tycoons parking their Gulfstreams spoke volumes of the parlous state of the Californian economy.

The crowd was a motley array of Arnistas - a true cross-section of one of the most motley corners of America.

There was a white-haired, white granny with a Zimmer frame who told me she admired the body builder because he was strong. Then there was a car mechanic who liked Arnie even more after he was accused of having groped no fewer than 15 women: "At least they were women."

A Mexican immigrant turned up in a two-ton Hummer gas guzzler with a sticker "Red, White and Blue - these colours don't run". The Avon lady, immaculately turned out and brittle as a porcelain doll who I later saw hover expectantly behind Arnie.

And the hardcore feminist who still supported the "grope-amater" despite his wandering hands.





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