Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition from movie star to gubernatorial candidate hit its first rough patch Friday as he ducked questions about the state’s fiscal crisis, gay marriage and workplace benefits.
At the same time, Schwarzenegger picked up the support of President Bush, who said the bodybuilder-turned-actor would make a good governor.
But on the third day of his campaign, the novice Republican candidate drew his first sustained attack from Democrats, who pounced on his refusal to answer some questions during a round of morning interviews on national television news shows.
Asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about gay marriage, he replied: “I don’t want to get into that right now.”
Asked about a news report quoting aides saying he was open to tax increases, Schwarzenegger said: “I can’t imagine anyone on my team said that.” He said that his solution was not raising taxes or cutting programs, but to “bring businesses back to California.” But Schwarzenegger offered no strategy for attracting business. In fact, he has argued for reversing an increase in the car tax -- which would cost the state treasury billions -- even as he has advocated for more spending on school buildings and teacher hiring.
Financial experts who rate the state bonds have said that cuts in services or higher taxes or both are necessary to close the state’s budget gap.
Schwarzenegger declined requests to explain how he would manage all of this.
On NBC’s “Today Show,” interviewer Matt Lauer pressed him. “You talk about the budget deficit. You talk about the energy crisis, the slumping economy, people leaving California. Give me some specifics, Arnold. How are you going to turn it around?”
Schwarzenegger offered no details, focusing his answer on the governor:
“Well, I think the first and most important thing is to know that it takes leadership, because Gray Davis is saying he has the experience and all of those things. We have seen now what happens. He has sold himself as the man that has experience you cannot buy. What happened with all his experience? Look at the situation we’re in right now.”
Asked later in the same interview whether he would disclose his tax returns, as candidates for high office typically do, Schwarzenegger fiddled with his earpiece and said he could not hear the question. (In an appearance in Bellflower later Friday, Schwarzenegger said he would make disclosure but did not say when. “Absolutely. I have nothing to hide,” he said.)
Democrats quickly seized on the TV appearances. The state Democratic Party put out a statement saying: “Pretending they can’t hear the questions might work in Hollywood, but it doesn’t cut it for the voters of California.”
Garry South, who led Davis’ two successful campaigns for governor, went further. “Clearly what he has decided to do is to try to shelter himself from the mainstream political press and hide under the skirts of the entertainment press,” South said. He added that he thinks Schwarzenegger is gambling that the recall election season is so short and “there will be so many candidates, there will be so much hysteria, that he slides through this entire process without ever having to stand and deliver.”
South said that media outlets needed to apply more scrutiny to Schwarzenegger and mentioned in particular the actor’s record of voting. (A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder said Friday that Schwarzenegger had voted in only two of the last eight statewide elections).
Even some Republicans questioned the TV appearances. “Does anyone ever get a direct answer from him?” asked Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg. “They asked him specific, direct easy questions. He’s just now answering.”
Pressed about his lack of detailed positions in Bellflower, Schwarzenegger said: “With the campaign, everything is under control. I’m having a great time in this campaign. I have so much energy. I have so much fire. I will be going from home to home to talk to the people of California.”
On Friday, his campaign said: “As the campaign moves forward, Mr. Schwarzenegger will make it clear the direction he wants to take this state. The details of progress on major issues will be released as the campaign moves on.”
Even with Democrats on the attack, Schwarzenegger and his aides could take comfort from increasing signs that Republicans are clearing a path. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) dropped out of the race Friday, saying that he couldn’t have competed with Schwarzenegger.
Last year’s failed Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. announced that he would file candidacy papers today. But other Republicans have fallen away.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the recall election’s main financial backer, and onetime Republican U.S. Senate nominee Michael Huffington dropped out this week, both endorsing Schwarzenegger.
And though the White House has said that the recall issue is a matter for the people of California to decide, President Bush offered praise while speaking to reporters in Crawford, Texas.
“Yes, I think he’d be a good governor,” Bush said. The president did not say if he would campaign for Schwarzenegger.
A lighthearted Bush added: “I will never arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger.... No matter how hard I try, I’ll never lift as much weight as he does.”
Times staff writers Vicki Kemper in Texas, Tim Reiterman in Sacramento, and Ronald Brownstein and Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.