In a quiet moment before Arnold Schwarzenegger's Election Night gathering in Los Angeles, Bob White, the candidate's chief of staff, wrapped up a cell phone call. Standing alone in the center of a palm-studded, concrete mall at the Century Plaza Hotel, Mr. White smiled down at the ground as he chatted genially with a caller 3,000 miles away. "Thanks, Karl," Mr. White said, signing off: "Give the president my best."
A "best of luck" call from George W. Bush's right-hand man, Karl Rove? "More than that, probably," Mr. White told WORLD. The White House "is feeling pretty good about it."
As well they should have. At the instant polls closed in California's historic recall election, cable news networks CNN and MSNBC declared Gov. Gray Davis vanquished and named Mr. Schwarzenegger governor-elect. Official tallies would eventually show that the action-film star had won almost 50 percent of the vote.
Former state Republican Party chairman Shawn Steel, the man who originally tossed out the recall idea on San Francisco talk radio last December, signed the first line on the first petition for recall. Ten months later, standing in a Century Plaza ballroom, he declared Tuesday's election "the most dramatic political upset in California history, and one of the most important in American history."
Many of the candidate's most fervent supporters missed the sweetest moment of the evening. Exit polls throughout the day were so lopsided that the news media called the election before a single Schwarzenegger supporter had been allowed into the hotel ballroom. Only the press corps, surrounding an empty floor festooned expectantly with patriotic balloons, was there to receive the news.
The press corps may have been news in itself. Mr. Schwarzenegger's combination of celebrity and bipartisan political connections (ranging from Bush I to the Kennedy-Shriver clan) attracted reporters from near and far. Hours before the ballroom doors opened to the candidate's supporters, CNN personalities Tucker Carlson and Judy Woodruff nabbed prime broadcast spots directly across from the stage, while Entertainment Tonight reporter Jan Carl had to settle for a less desirable spot off stage right. Technicians and "talent" from the shows and networks including the TV Guide Channel, Inside Edition, Fox News, and BBC, crowded onto risers crammed with cameras and microphones. So intense was the fight for broadcast space that a fistfight erupted between cameramen from two media outlets, scattering equipment and prompting L.A.P.D. intervention.
Meanwhile, representatives from media outlets with less clout crowded into a room upstairs to dicker for the coveted green arm- bands that would allow access to the party. "I am only press from Korea!" a female reporter cried plaintively above the clamor of representatives from Italy, China, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan. A British reporter, taller and more persuasive than his competitors, reached over the Korean's head to secure his arm-band before she could. But campaign handlers eventually found space in the ballroom for each of hundreds of reporters, even though it meant moving big-bucks campaign contributors to an overflow room next door.
Not that the press room was completely emptied. Monrovia resident Robert Lee Bell, a truck driver, was still there. Driving -and sometimes sleeping in-his 1995 Geo Metro, Mr. Bell had for four days followed Mr. Schwarzenegger's "Join Arnold" bus tour in its 950-mile, 11th-hour dash up and down the state. Clad in a sport coat and slacks, Mr. Bell had tagged along to L.A. for the election-night event, mingling with reporters in hopes of slipping into the ballroom among them. But security was too tight and space was too precious. Despite his credentials as a perhaps over-ardent fan, Mr. Bell never made it to the main event.
Not everyone at the party was drawn by the Schwarzenegger star power, of course. The actor's big-tent appeal also helped to attract liberal Republicans who couldn't bring themselves to support the party's more conservative nominees.
"For years we felt abandoned by the Republican Party," said Rae Emmett of Santa Monica, the wife of Dan Emmett, an environmental consultant to the Schwarzenegger campaign. "The party has gone so far to the right that it's never going to collect the average human being back into the political arena. Finally, we have a candidate who is a social moderate and a fiscal conservative."
Sue McNiel Corry and Ray Chafe felt the same way. Both are officers in Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a national group representing 23,000 "merit shop," or nonunion, construction companies. During five years under the notoriously pro-union Davis administration (unions contributed millions to Mr. Davis's effort to survive the recall), merit shop workers felt shut out.
"We're looking for a reprieve," Mrs. Corry said.
"It's a breath of fresh air!" Mr. Chafe proclaimed, raising his wine glass in a small toast. "Arnold is just what the GOP needed. We can't be the staunch right-wingers of the past. We needed a moderate, electable governor. We needed someone who could win."
Many conservatives across California held their noses and voted for Mr. Schwarzenegger, even though they believed State Sen. Tom McClintock was the better man for the job. Mr. McClintock was endorsed by pro-life groups and by evangelical leaders such as James Dobson and Gary Bauer. But he also touted his 20 years' experience handling state budget issues, pledging to rescind the hated triple car tax, overhaul worker's compensation, and slash deficit spending.
But despite his long career and high name recognition, Mr. McClintock remained mired in the mid-teens throughout the abbreviated recall campaign. It didn't help that the Republican Party officially endorsed Mr. Schwarzenegger a week before the election. In the end, voters who disagreed with Mr. Schwarzenegger's views on abortion and special rights for homosexuals (he's for both) judged it more important to oust Mr. Davis and ward off Mr. Bustamante than to cast conscience-votes for Mr. McClintock.
Not so for Lorraine Mabbett, a former crisis pregnancy center director from the San Fernando Valley who had attended the party "because my sister wanted to come." The notion of voters abandoning Mr. McClintock in favor of political pragmatism angered Ms. Mabbett. "God gave us in McClintock what we wanted in a candidate ... what would [pragmatists] do if Jesus came? Say, 'We're not going to hang around with Him, because He's not going to win'?"
Ms. Mabbett said she had spoken with many who work in the pro-life trenches. Such conservatives, she said, "will not compromise. I feel I'd be wasting my vote to vote for someone who is not pro-life."
And so Ms. Mabbett looked on skeptically as the rest of the crowd erupted in cheers. When Mr. Schwarzenegger finally took the stage surrounded by celebrities, politicians, and Kennedy in-laws, it felt oddly like the feel-good ending of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Amid the blizzard of balloons and confetti and goodwill, it was easy to forget that this was not an ending at all, but merely the opening credits. With bare weeks to assemble a transition team and with a hostile state legislature lying in wait, Mr. Schwarzenegger was taking on his toughest role yet.
In politics, as in entertainment, everyone's a critic.