OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

The American state of California is undergoing one of those strange interludes that leads outsiders to proclaim its citizens are, to quote a line of dialogue from Plenty uttered by Sir John Gielgud, "positively barking".

The candidacy of the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election to decide who will serve as California's governor for the next three years has drawn unprecedented media coverage (including a horde of foreign reporters "sensing a sterling opportunity", reports the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, "to expound on all things American: democracy, immigration, celebrity and natural-born wackiness").

On 7 October, Californians will be asked to cast ballots in a recall election, a sort of vote of no confidence in a country where that concept is as alien as an unsugared breakfast cereal or a gas-sipping minicar.

The incumbent governor, Gray Davis, who rode to re-election on a tidal wave of expensive attack ads, is close to drowning, a victim of his aloof personality, the recession and an energy crisis. The voters first will be asked if they want to dump him, then they will be asked to choose his successor from among 135 candidates.

No, that's not a misprint. Schwarzenegger is merely one of 135 folks vying to succeed Davis, ranging from the incumbent lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, and the political gadfly Arianna Huffington ("the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus," in the now-famous words of a British journalist) to the pint-sized TV actor Gary Coleman and the pornographer Larry Flynt. There's even a candidate who can be considered a creature of advertising, a pink-haired, Corvette-driving woman named Angelyne, a celebrity of sorts after years of buying billboard space around Los Angeles to promote herself.

That unwieldy field of would-be "governators", to cite one jape inspired by Schwarzenegger's candidacy, has become a bonanza for Madison Avenue, always looking to capitalise on high-profile current events for that marketing tactic known as borrowed interest.

For instance, Reebok International and its agency, the Arnell Group, tried to land a ballot spot for an actor who plays Terry Tate, a boisterous brand character in a series of popular Reebok commercials. Alas, he was ruled ineligible to run, but not before he "declared" his candidacy on a Reebok website, complete with a campaign slogan: "Save our state - vote Terry Tate."

America Online is running a funny ad suggesting voters use a search engine to sort through the candidates. And the Taco Bell fast-food chain is sponsoring a tongue-in-cheek poll at its 1,000 Golden State restaurants in a quintessentially American exercise of the right to choose: to support your favourite candidate, buy a menu item. The selections are: a crunchy beef taco, representing Schwarzenegger; a Chalupa, for Bustamante; and a Grilled Stuft Burrito, for any other candidate. (Customers against the recall can buy a soft chicken taco, a designation that has angered Davis fans who suspect corporate editorialising.)

So who'll win what's likely to be the zaniest, most madcap US election since, well, the 2000 race for the White House? So far, it's the California media, especially TV stations, benefiting from an unexpected windfall of election spending in a year in which there weren't supposed to be elections. By some estimates, the 135 candidates, and the anti-recall forces, will spend as much as $100 million on ads. That surely would buy enough tacos to satisfy even a Schwarzenegger-sized appetite.


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