As candidates for governor capitalized on a media frenzy over Arnold Schwarzenegger and the possible recall of Gov. Gray Davis, in recent days strutting through endless radio, TV and newspaper interviews, the one candidacy that took an early, recognizable form was that of Arianna Huffington.
After news that the well-to-do syndicated columnist paid only $771 in IRS taxes over the past two years, her candidacy was smashed as flat as the Salton Sea.
And after a period in which Democratic unity against running a recall candidate shattered, and Davis sank in the polls for announcing he would sign a driver's license bill for illegal immigrants, the governor was back in Sacramento where his handlers described him as "acting like a governor."
Davis made sure TV cameras shot him signing bills, but he was his usual self once they left, doling out favors in an apparent bid to drum up campaign dollars.
Mysteriously, numerous judgeships started getting filled after months of delays.
"Now, every day, Davis is appointing judges, so I wonder how much those judgeships are going for?" asked John Feliz, campaign director for Thousand Oaks Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock. "Am I being too cynical? Listen, if Davis doesn't start selling furniture out of his office, I will be surprised."
And big banks said they'd had a surprise change of heart on a privacy bill they stopped dead, yet now won't oppose.
The bill, by Democratic state Sen. Jackie Speier of Hillsborough, died in committee after lawmakers who had accepted a total of $667,000 from bankers and insurers refused to vote on it, or voted no.
God knows what the banks were promised in order to make this U-turn, but they clearly fear the growing populist rage to put an even tougher privacy measure on the March, 2004 ballot.
The person who benefits immediately? Davis. He got on Larry King Live to chat about the East Coast power outage, then promptly took credit for the privacy bill.
Granted, it's good legislation to stop the selling of our private information. But the spectacle of rushed deals on once-dead issues has Capitol staffers mocking Davis for auctioning off the government.
"I suppose if there is a fire-sale mentality over there, you might see a lot of things like that," says Wayne Johnson, chief consultant to Republican Bill Simon. "But it will get less and less likely that Davis can bring people under his influence, because more are concluding he will not be governor."
Davis aides deny such shenanigans are afoot in the statehouse.
Sorry, I don't buy that.
Sacramento's putrid odors have not yet hit the noses of most media, who were dazzled by Schwarzenegger's kickoff on the Jay Leno show and are now shifting to the time-honored game of Whack the Frontrunner.
The Spanish-language media are aghast over the unplanned disclosure by former Gov. Pete Wilson during a talk show that Schwarzenegger voted for Proposition 187 in 1994. The measure would have denied taxpayer-financed state services to California's 1.3 million illegal immigrants (now numbering 2.6 to 3 million).
Wilson's boo-boo makes life harder for Schwarzenegger. But that's good. We are overdue for a discussion about the $3 billion spent from state coffers on illegal immigrants, only 19 percent of whom file tax returns, according to the State Auditor General.
Meanwhile, the media are increasingly displeased that Schwarzenegger won't give any interviews-except silly moments on national shows.
The deeply affronted Washington Post seems to believe that it is first in line once Arnold gets serious, but California journalists are angling for first crack. When the cattle call goes out, it'll be ugly.
So far, the public isn't interested in that which annoys the media.
Most polls show Schwarzenegger ahead of Bustamante, although at least one new poll shows them in a statistical tie. So many young people and others are registering for Oct. 7 that Riverside County predicts "a possible presidential-level turnout."
Bustamante seized on his improved showing, attacking Davis, to whom he hasn't spoken in months, for warning big Democrats not to donate him money.
Bustamante is asking for a "no" vote on the recall, and called for a reversal of the recently tripled car tax, which set the recall movement into high gear. But Bustamante was immediately assailed for doing nothing to stop the Davis Administration from implementing the new tax.
The Democrats pushed hard for the car tax to be tripled, ignoring a parade of community groups and tax experts who said that tripling the car tax, already the highest in the nation, would enrage car-reliant, working Californians.
As Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson told me in February: "We only care about the net $4 billion we would get" from the tripled tax-not who it would affect.
The lieutenant governor's job is ceremonial, so Bustamante's power is the bully pulpit. But he'll be judged for remaining silent and failing to use his pulpit to question the car tax.
The tax was tripled, without a vote, under a scheme some call "The Immaculate Taxation." In a move that typifies why Davis and the state Legislature get 20-percent approval ratings, nobody takes responsibility.
Davis insists the tax is a "fee," so his administration was legally permitted to triple it administratively-without the two-thirds vote of the Legislature required to raise taxes. But Davis refuses to admit that anyone under him did the tripling.
Now that Department of Motor Vehicle tax-hike notices are arriving at households, however, the crass pols of Sacramento suddenly care.
"It's the cheapest piece of anti-Davis political mail that will be sent out," chortled one Republican consultant.
The Assembly wants to switch the higher car tax for new taxes on liquor, cigarettes and high earners-and wants to use a loophole to do it without the required two-thirds vote. This will backfire, but do they ever learn?
Bustamante also backs a host of other new taxes totalling $7.2 billion and says he won't cap state spending if elected. Schwarzenegger's hardly a shoe-in, but Bustamante is giving him some juicy targets.
Meanwhile, the right-wing, reminding us how teensy the Republican tent is, attacked Schwarzenegger for backing gay adoption and siding with Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Right-wingers are into Republican murder-suicide pacts, in which they attack any moderate Republican who can win. They don't want victory, just a bullhorn.
Is it possible a true conservative could win? It's very unlikely, but out of nowhere Tom McClintock raised more than $1.5 million in cash and pledges. McClintock (the sole legislator to vote against the infamous prison guards pay raise) is known for not raising much money and not helping special interests.
McClintock is conservative with a libertarian streak, but is popular among the liberal Sacramento press corps because he gets his numbers right, understands the budget better than Davis and is imminently quotable.
Those qualities landed McClintock on dozens of talk shows this month-a big change for a guy who couldn't get coverage last year when he nearly beat Steve Westly for controller. Westly outspent him 10 to 1. McClintock lost by less than 1 percent.
"Last night Tom almost became our Howard Dean-we raised more than $10,000 in one day on the Internet," says Feliz.
Rich Indian tribes may underwrite McClintock's campaign, to help him draw votes from Arnold so their man, Bustamante, can win. Whatever-it's politics!
Two others threaten Schwarzenegger and Bustamante: Simon and moderate crossover candidate Peter Ueberroth. Ueberroth was out of sight, waiting for the supernova glare from Schwarzenegger to wane. He pulled a coup when he landed Dan Schnur of Sacramento, a top Republican strategist-even though Ueberroth is now an Independent.
Simon was all over the airwaves, rising each day at 3:30 a.m. to hit national shows back East and not stopping until he was exhausted.
It may seem a small thing that Simon mentions bible stories and starts sentences with "Gosh!" But it's a reminder that he's spent much of his life sheltered from the rough and tumble, rising in a world made easier by his father.
On the other hand, he's a smart cookie-the only candidate who deduced early in 2002 that California would face a deficit of more than $20 billion. Davis, state political leaders and the media laughed Simon off.
A final candidate worth watching is the Green Party's Peter Camejo, a thoughtful guy who cannot win but infuriated some Democrats for jumping in. (Talk about your small tents.)
In San Francisco, as Camejo and Ralph Nader announced Nader's endorsement of him, a pie-throwing dissident rushed up and "pied" Nader's face. Sputtered a furious Camejo, "This was the work of Democrats!"
A Democrat myself, I've been saying that all year. In a historic victory in 2002, my party won both houses and every statewide office, yet can't seem to intelligently use all that power and leverage.
The question is, which candidate, of any party, is smart enough to ride the wave of populist disgust into a town that refuses to accept what is happening out there-out there on myriad airwaves over which the insiders have no control.