The big debate gets under way at 6:00 p.m. tonight, PST, and the media is working itself into a frenzy. My take is that unless Arnold comes up with the California equivalent of President Ford’s declaration of a free Poland in 1976, the debate will be a non-factor in the race.

Oh, it could seal the end of Tom McClintock’s career if he tries to land cheap shots on Arnold, and it might scare another few points away from Cruz when he announces his latest lame-brained idea (“We should socialize surfing – all boards the same length, all waves the same height and rides divided up equally, with extra attention paid to people who cannot surf!”). Arianna’s desperation is growing more and more repellant, so expect some shrieking from her end of the stage, but generally, a non-event.

But no matter how odd the behavior of the second-tier candidates, or how boring the questions, it just won’t matter. There is only one issue that matters to most voters. It absorbs all other issues in this race: The corruption in Sacramento.

The workers’ comp mess? It is about the corrupt influence of the trial lawyers. The huge giveaways to prison guards and other public-employee unions? The corrupt influence of big labor. The massive expansion of tribal casinos and the obscene amount of money pouring from the slots into the voting process? The corrupt influence of California’s Indian tribes.

Most of this corruption is legal. Most corruption is. But the stench of the decay in Sacramento doesn’t diminish because Gray Davis has invented transparency in payoffs. The tribes brazenly gave millions to Cruz who transferred it to an anti-initiative campaign that features, surprise, Cruz. The money-laundering is out in the open, on the front lawn of the State House – but it is no less corrupt.

The tribes pumped huge sums into a pro-McClintock fund. This is legal, but it stinks. It is a manipulation of the electorate – a cynical assist to Cruz via the draining of votes from Arnold. Corrupt? Of course it is. Tom McClintock cannot raise enough money on his own under the $21,200 limit of the law, so he’s welcoming the tribes’ largesse via an independent expenditure.

Every single interest group lined up to get something from Gray as Gov. Clouseau’s career dwindled into its final month. All the hands were stuck out, and Gray walked the line distributing bennies all along the way. Hiram Johnson never imagined corruption on this scale. The Los Angeles Times tut-tuts that the recall is bad for the state. How can anything that smashes the machine up north be bad for the state?

The scale of the collapse of public ethics is so huge that most pundits have given up commenting on it. Tammany is reincarnate. The Davis administration is epic in its fundraising and epic in its deal-making. It is the only thing that will be memorable about Davis – the size of his appetite for cash and the sleaze that was required to feed that appetite.

On Thursday, observers will be dissecting what Arnold said about paid leave or what Cruz said about the car tax. How boring and how beside the point.

This election is about the numbers of people that have a share in Davis, Inc. vs. the rest of us.

I think there are more of us than there are of them and that as a result Arnold wins hands down. Only McClintock can save Cruz at this point. The only interesting question is will he?


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