Inside the numbers: Arnold and Howard

Posted: Aug 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Some campaigns peak too soon. We'll soon know if the two hottest names in politics this summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, are bright new stars or just streaking meteors about to fizzle out.

First, Dean. The latest InsiderAdvantage Presidential 2004 tracking poll shows the once-obscure Dean is now leading nationwide among the Democrats vying for the 2004 Democratic nomination. His early stand against the war in Iraq has become more fashionable among other Democrats, and his combined use of populist rhetoric and of the Internet has made him the "electro-pop" candidate of the presidential sweepstakes.

And then there's Arnold. The Terminator is basking in the theatre lights of the California governor's recall race, but the latest Field Poll of California voters shows him trailing Democrat Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante among potential replacements for Gov. Gray Davis. (Just about every other survey taken shows Schwarzenegger with a substantial lead over the field of hundreds of candidates.)

So what does the Democratic presidential candidate Dean have in common with the Republican movie-star-turned-gubernatorial-candidate out West? Maybe that both are suffering from an old electioneering disease -- peaking too soon.

It can be argued that such a phenomenon isn't possible with Schwarzenegger, given that he only recently announced his candidacy and the election is set for early to late fall. But now there is talk of a federal judge postponing Election Day. Plus, Schwarzenegger's decision to take advice from "real businessmen" like Warren Buffet might provide just the recipe of delay and folly necessary to switch off the Terminator's motherboard.

Having run a gubernatorial race in which a party's nominee insisted on advice from "successful businessmen," I can personally testify that even the keenest business acumen rarely translates into astute political judgment. Buffet's disastrous suggestion that Californians don't pay enough in property taxes put the Schwarzenegger campaign in the ditch almost before it got going. No one doubts Buffet's Midas touch for business decisions -- nor the fact that a tax hike may indeed be necessary. But it defies reason for Buffet to publicly offer Schwarzenegger this flippant suggestion about raising taxes almost immediately upon being hailed as Arnold's economic wizard.

Like most successful businessmen, Buffet -- the Oracle of Omaha -- hasn't a clue as to the intricate political strategy needed to win Golden State's golden prize of the Governor's Mansion, or any other political race. Worse for Schwarzenegger, more savvy conservative GOP candidates, such as former Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, have seized right away on Buffet's comments and launched TV ads aimed at sheering away right-wing support from Republican Arnold.

Now Schwarzenegger has added Democrat actor Rob Lowe to his list of supporter-advisers. If this trend continues, we may see what appeared to be a sure win for the GOP burst into flames before the first vote can be cast.

In Dean's case, there are no media superstars or corporate giants to muddy the waters. But it seems odd that the man who just a few months ago was considered a bit of a flake by his fellow Democrats has now soared beyond them to lead our poll, plus another survey of Iowa voters by The Des Moines Register.

Dean's quick ascent can be attributed to his embracing of the working power of computer technology, coupled with a campaign message designed to appeal to rural Americans, and to any and all others who feel left out of today's political goings-on.

So far, the strategy has paid off. Dean has out-raised his higher-profile foes through Web-begging appeals for money. He has also reportedly captured growing crowds on the campaign trail with his appeal to young people and his shoot-from-the-hip approach to the issues.

But will Howard Dean's "outsider" campaign still be standing when the traditional Democratic kingmakers, such as unions, start playing hardball? Can he and his fresh-faced legions of supporters survive months of running to stay ahead of the Teamsters, the lawyers, the attack ads, and all the other games and players that come with bare-knuckle politics?

It might be refreshing to see him survive that kind of rough-and-tumble-politics, but if he does, the Democrats might have to face President Bush with a nominee too far to the left for the average American voter.

As for Schwarzenegger, his do-or-die question is whether his fledgling candidacy will come crashing down from the weight of too many self-declared political experts, whose collective political sense serves only to confuse both the candidate and the public.