Larry and Trojans and Bear Hugs, Oh My

Times Staff Writer

It was a curious evening.

Rivals John F. Kerry and John Edwards were practically Chip ‘n’ Dale polite when they should have been ripping each other to shreds: “Excuse me.” “I’m sorry.” “Go ahead.”

The biggest scream of the night was not earned by anybody running for president.

It went to debate moderator Larry King.

“Go Trojans,” King deadpanned shortly before the debate began. The crowd went wild.

Ed Asner schmoozed candidate wife Elizabeth Edwards, who literally hoisted herself onto the high stage at the debate’s conclusion, then made a beeline for someone else’s husband to hug and kiss.

After embracing Kerry, she shook her husband’s hand, then wrapped her arms around Dennis J. Kucinich.

“Elizabeth and I are friends,” Kucinich said in the post-debate spin room. “We’ve been part of a process for a year or more now.”

She is, he said, “a remarkable woman.”

Later, the burly Asner would nearly swallow the tiny Kucinich in a post-debate bear hug.

“I’ve campaigned for Kucinich and I’m sure I’ll vote for him Tuesday,” Asner said. “I’ve been disappointed with some of John Kerry’s performances in debates, but I thought tonight he did a wonderful job.”

Half an hour before the CNN Los Angeles Times Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, former Gov. Gray Davis strolled down the noisy, crowded walk in front of USC’s Bovard Auditorium.

Davis, with his wife, Sharon, looked positively content. He’s lectured at USC. He’s been honored recently by the National Resources Defense Council and Planned Parenthood. And he’s found a new line of work.

“I debut on ‘Yes, Dear’ Monday at 8 o’clock,” he said, referring to the CBS sitcom.

In Hollywood, wasn’t it just a matter of time? The actor became a governor; the governor has now become an actor.

“I play myself on a sitcom,” Davis said. “I think you might enjoy that.”

You actually tell jokes? he was asked.

“I’m the straight man,” he said. “But the show is funny. They had a lot of fun at my expense.” (They always do: When King singled out Davis for a special introduction, he lapsed into bad faux-Schwarzenegger: “Very nice to haff you here,” he said in a goofy accent. Davis looked at his wife, then realized the joke and laughed.)

Outside the auditorium, it was the usual political circus — a band of drummers for Kucinich was pounding away; contingents for Kerry and Edwards were chanting their candidates’ names.

One lonely Howard Dean fan stood trying to affix her Dean poster, with the words “Still voting for” taped at the top, to a metal rail.

Given her candidate’s flameout, Linda Wilson, the owner of a Long Beach day-care center, seemed pretty chipper.

“I am devastated,” she said of his exit from the race last week, smiling. “We cried. We’re having a wake on Saturday night — well, a celebration. But we’re having comfort food.”

Next to her, a Deaniac ripped a Kerry sign off the rail. “You stole our message,” he said. “We can steal your sign.”

Inside, the 400 or so spectators — USC students, politicians, journalists and assorted other invitees of the sponsors — were warmed up game-show-style. They were coached on how to clap and when, and heard the usual admonitions.

“Tonight’s event is a live event,” the show’s producer said. “I want you to participate tonight, but I want you to participate in the right way, not the wrong way.

“Remember, you are going to be on camera. Don’t play with your hair, brush your hair or brush your teeth.”

When King took the stage to finish the warmup, he found himself having to stretch to accommodate the candidates’ late arrival. (They’d been holed up in Winnebago-style star trailers next to the auditorium.) “Where are they? Is Kucinich in the bathroom?…. Let’s see who’s behind Curtain No. 1!” Nothing.

King proposed a new reality show: “Will They Appear?” and finally told CNN staffers, “Don’t say, ‘One more minute’ or I’ll kill you.”

It was probably the angriest moment of the night.