LOS ANGELES -- The first act of the California gubernatorial recall election road show had just ended at the Los Angeles County registrar's office, and Arianna Huffington, a key player, was feeling pretty good about it.
"It went fine. It was very good," she said Saturday as she settled into a chair with a glass of ice water on the patio of her lushly landscaped property in Brentwood.
Huffington did not mention the details of the spectacle in suburban Norwalk as candidates paid their $3,500 fee and filed their qualifying papers to meet the deadline to challenge Gov. Gray Davis (D) in the Oct. 7 special election. But her moves at the event were telling.
The 53-year-old syndicated columnist and author shared the grand entrance of the star attraction, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his wife, Maria Shriver, by arriving at the registrar at the same time they did. (Yes, her campaign team said: It was planned.) Huffington countered a crush of "Terminator" fans shouting "Arnold! Arnold!" by calling Schwarzenegger a "Bush Republican" connected to a president "disastrous to California."
Political commentator Arianna Huffington, right, an independent candidate in the California gubernatorial recall election, is confident about her chances. (AFP Photo/Hector Mata)
Huffington managed, while knocking down a bank of microphones, to squeeze herself next to Schwarzenegger as he emerged from the registrar's building, putting her face in the frame with his and Shriver's that would be on many Sunday front pages. Huffington, who would have been the most glamorous name in the field of 193 candidates officially on the recall ballot had Schwarzenegger not run, apparently has no intention of being eclipsed by his mega-celebrity.
Huffington, the ex-wife of a conservative Republican former congressman, Michael Huffington, is now independent, politically and personally, and a favorite of political progressives for her twice-a-week syndicated columns, best-selling books and frequent, witty appearances on political talk shows. Compelled to run, she said, by fans of her work and political activists who started a Web site -- www.runariannarun.com -- a few weeks ago, Huffington said she is a serious candidate and "definitely running to win."
"I never would have run if this were a regular election," she said. "But that's the difference with this election. This is the year that someone independent of the parties, with a grass-roots base, can definitely win as a progressive."
Political analysts, not sure of anything in an election that is a first in California, agree that anything can happen. Although Davis must win the recall -- a "no" vote -- with more than 50 percent of the vote to remain governor, the alternative candidate need only have the highest percentage of votes to replace him. This gives candidates with very small bases a chance.
Mark DiCamillo, director of California's independent Field Poll, estimated that it will take 1.5 million votes, or 20 percent of the expected 7.5 million turnout, to win the race. He said that until polls reflecting the candidates in the race were complete, it was difficult to predict where a non-Republican or Democratic candidate such as Huffington or the Green Party's Peter Camejo would stand. But, he said, earlier polls showed Camejo at 8 percent, and he thought that the two might actually split their vote. "I'm not sure Huffington and Camejo are going to be factors," he said.
Besides Schwarzenegger, the list of well-known, possibly viable competitors includes Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is the sole prominent Democrat in the field; conservative Republicans state Sen. Tom McClintock and Bill Simon, a billionaire businessman who narrowly lost to Davis last November; and independent Peter Ueberroth, a former baseball commissioner.
Huffington sounds confident that she can more than hold her own. A former president of the debating society at Cambridge University, where she received a master's degree in economics, she said she hopes "there will be several debates, at least" among the candidates. And in debates or elsewhere, Schwarzenegger, she said, will have to answer for "the sins" of President Bush.
"I intend to connect the dots every chance I can between the policies of the Bush administration and the hardships we're facing in California," she said in her thick Greek accent.
Skeptics may scoff at the notion that the camera-loving Huffington reluctantly entered the race after receiving, as she says, "thousands of e-mails" from people begging her to run.
But she calls the recall election, financed largely by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), "a right-wing power grab." She insists she would not be running if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the only Democrat who has consistently come out on top in the polls, had decided to run. Had Feinstein run, she said, "I would not have wanted to take away progressive votes from her and be a spoiler."
Huffington does not look like a rumpled populist. Model tall -- nearly as tall as the 6-foot-4 Schwarzenegger in her high heels -- thin and impeccably groomed, she looks more Hollywood than Haight-Ashbury. And she comes with the Brentwood address and hip, powerful friends. But as Tina Brown, who chides Huffington for leaving their shared vacation in the Irish countryside to run for governor, wrote in a column on www.salon.com: "With Arnold as a foil for Arianna, I see no downside in her giving the race a whirl as an Independent candidate. Her whole career has been one of fantastic reinvention."
Brown lists Huffington's incarnations, tracing her career and social climb from Cambridge scholar to Park Avenue socialite to Washington wife and "right-wing saloniste," "right down to her unlikely role today as ecologically hip anti-SUV campaigner, folk heroine of radical political Web sites, and author of the best-selling corporate-America skewering 'Pigs at the Trough.' "
Many lefties have no doubt that Huffington is a genuine convert. The leaders behind www.runariannarun.com include Van Jones, a 35-year-old Yale Law School graduate who directs the Ella Baker Human Rights Center in San Francisco. Julia "Butterfly" Hill of redwood-tree-sitting fame is another supporter, as is Hollywood friend Warren Beatty. Huffington's campaign manager is Bill Zimmerman, a longtime strategist for progressives who ran Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, Tom Hayden's 1976 senatorial campaign and two successful state ballot initiatives, Proposition 215 to legalize marijuana for medical use, and Proposition 36 to mandate drug treatment instead of jail for nonviolent offenders.
Camejo said he would support Huffington and ask his voters, if the Green Party approves, to vote for her if doing so could make the difference and allow her to win. "If the polls show me ahead, I should think she would do the same," he said. "But given early indications, the probability would be likely that we would be giving her support."
Huffington refused to speculate about any scenarios where she would drop out of the race. And while she and her ex-husband spent $30 million -- then a record -- in his unsuccessful bid for the Senate, she said she will not spend any of her money on this campaign.
"I don't want to be like those candidates who buy elections," she said, frowning for the first time in an hour. "I want to run a different kind of campaign. I want to run the kind of campaign I've dreamed a candidate would run."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company