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Governor Resisting Leap From Celebrity to Political Figure

Three things are striking about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's drive this week to qualify his "reform" initiatives for a special election in November.

  • The original political premise for his calling the special election no longer exists. The rationale for not waiting until a regular election next year was that this was a governor so overwhelmingly popular, he should move quickly to capitalize on the unique voter appeal. Such opportunities are rare.

    Well, scratch that. The popularity has plummeted.

  • In the governor's new TV ad promoting his spending control initiative, he looks squarely at viewers and says: "Do you know that for every dollar the state takes in, the legislators spend one dollar-10?"

    First, Schwarzenegger signed this year's budget. Second, legislators don't spend money. They appropriate it. Governors spend. There's shared blame. Ask Gray Davis.

  • Mr. Celebrity still is resisting the transformation into political leader, and that's at the heart of his plunging popularity.

One former advisor to Ronald Reagan, both in Sacramento and Washington, told me that every celebrity candidate must make a transition to political leader. Once in office, he's simply forced to make too many decisions that are political and create enemies.

"How he makes that transition will determine his success," says the veteran strategist, who didn't want to risk irking the governor by being identified.

"By election time next year, Arnold's going to be viewed more as a political figure than a celebrity. I don't think he understands that, and that sooner or later he'll lose the celebrity aura. He still thinks his personality can overcome all this.

"He has wasted away his celebrity status by picking too many fights and picking the wrong fights. He's got to back off."

Schwarzenegger would much rather speak at mall rallies or in diners, performing to the wide eyes of adoring admirers and hearing their cheers, than engage in delicate negotiations with adversarial Democrats who no longer are awed.

And who can blame him? Except rolling up his sleeves in Sacramento is what he was elected to do, and did do during his first year in office.

His big victories last year - workers' comp reform, plus voter approval of a $15-billion deficit reduction bond and a balanced-budget requirement - were the results of bipartisan compromises in the Capitol.

A recent poll by the nonpartisan Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State found that 62% of voters agreed that "he should be putting more effort into working with legislators so he'd get more done."

But Schwarzenegger's strength, he and his advisors believe, is rallying the people for his causes at carefully choreographed events. The governor has insisted on retaining the image of political "outsider."

It's this attitude that prompted Schwarzenegger and his gurus to begin planning for a 2005 special election even before the balloting last November.

Never mind that the governor, for the most part, still hasn't taken the time to develop his own specific "reforms" - researched, tested, vetted them - and merely has latched onto other people's proposals outside his administration.

One - public pension reform - was so flawed he had to scuttle it.

When anybody would ask his strategists and business backers what was the hurry - what was the justification for spending $70 million in tax money on a special election this year when there'll be regular elections in 2006 - the whispered answer was: This is a moment to seize. Here is a governor so popular that he can sell voters anything with the force of his personality.

It made sense then, when his job approval ratings were in the high 60s. It doesn't now, after they've fallen to the low 40s.

He could bounce back before November, of course. He still has star power.

But let's retrace his downward trek: Name-calling that helped polarize the electorate. Picking fights with teachers, nurses, firefighters and cops, who are more respected even than Hollywood superstars. Wearing out an old act: the Terminator kicks butt. Confusing acrimony with action. Choosing "reforms" - legislative redistricting, teacher tenure - that are yawners to most people.

Voters are concerned about "living within our means" - the name Schwarzenegger has attached to his adopted spending cap initiative - and this is his top priority. But his focus has been scattered.

Finally, this week, he began running TV ads pitching the proposal, trying to counter $8 million in attack ads targeted at him, another reason for his popularity plunge.

About that ad of his: It sounds good - the Legislature spending $1.10 for every $1 the state rakes in. But it's disingenuous. And any civics teacher would flunk the governor.

The Legislature can't create spending without a governor's signature. Moreover, a California governor has awesome power over the purse with a "blue pencil." It allows him to veto significant types of expenditures before signing a budget. It's power that even a U.S. president doesn't have.

As for that $1.10 figure, in one fiscal year, 2000-01, revenues were roughly $71 billion and expenditures $78 billion. That governor ultimately got recalled.

Schwarzenegger's government certainly hasn't lived within its means, unless you count continued credit-card charges. He has borrowed billions.

The conclusion from all this: A special election suddenly looks too risky for Schwarzenegger. He should forget it and cut his losses. Save taxpayers the $70 million. Focus on negotiating bipartisan reforms that can go on next year's regular ballot. Transform himself into a governor.

Schwarzenegger can't turn around unless he changes direction.

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