By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005
SAN DIEGO, Sept. 16 -- Declaring "I am here as your warrior," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Friday that he will seek reelection in 2006, hoping to reverse a months-long slide in the polls and rejuvenate his campaign to pass three controversial ballot initiatives in November.
Girding for the toughest battle of his fledgling political career, the action-hero-turned-Republican politician came here -- the one major California city where his poll numbers have not plummeted -- and told a hand-picked crowd of 200: "I'm going to follow through with this. I'm not in here for three years. I'm in here for seven years."
Schwarzenegger's announcement was made less than two years after he roared to power on the back of a historic gubernatorial 2003 recall election in which he promised to end the poisonous partisanship in the state capital. Instead, Schwarzenegger has come to be seen as a partisan figure in his own right, who has struggled to reach accommodation with the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Schwarzenegger's advisers urged him to announce his reelection plans early, claiming it will help to raise enough money to counter what they estimate will be a $50 million onslaught of negative ads against the ballot initiatives. Schwarzenegger's aides also announced Friday that the governor would contribute millions of dollars of his personal money to the initiative campaign.
"The governor believes in putting his own money where his mouth is," said Mike Murphy, one of the governor's chief strategists.
Schwarzenegger came to power backed by Republicans and Democrats alienated by the politics-as-usual climate in Sacramento. He spent his first year hammering out a bipartisan budget compromise and yanking California's finances -- with a debt of $22 billion -- back from the brink of disaster. Then in January, at his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger turned his sights on the powerful public employee unions whose influence over the legislature, he argued, has stymied meaningful restructuring of government.
He demanded the power to impose across-the-board cuts when spending exceeds revenue and vowed to overhaul the state pension system, tighten tenure requirements for schoolteachers, reduce the number of nurses at hospitals and give an independent panel of judges, not the legislature, the power to draw congressional district boundaries.
The governor was forced to back away from several of his proposals, but three -- on the budget, teacher tenure and redistricting -- ended up on the Nov. 8 ballot. Along the way, Schwarzenegger gave his rivals an opportunity to paint him not as an opponent of the unions but as a foe of the nurses, teachers, firefighters and policemen that they represent.
There is little doubt that his star power has faded. His positive press -- from the New Yorker to Vanity Fair -- has evaporated. In the latest Field Poll, 36 percent of registered voters say they think he is doing a good job, the lowest rating since he took office. And Republican loyalists criticize him openly, trafficking in rumors -- or, perhaps, dreams -- of an impending shake-up in his campaign and administration.
"Arnold seems inept," said Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist based in Los Angeles. "What is he doing running around having town meetings? His campaign seems completely unfocused."
Hoffenblum said the governor's administration, bedeviled by flagging polls and dogged at each destination -- including Friday's visit to downtown San Diego -- by demonstrating nurses, teachers, firefighters and police officers, has descended into a "bunker mentality," isolating the candidate from real voters.
One senior Republican Party official mused that if Schwarzenegger was serious about the fight, he should wade back into the fray and wield his high-octane charisma to win back popular support. "He needs to go out there and get people throwing eggs at him again," the official quipped, recalling the incident in Long Beach on Sept. 3, 2003, when Schwarzenegger was smacked on the left shoulder with an egg and, unruffled, went on campaigning.
Part of Schwarzenegger's fall from grace is the inevitable waning of the novelty of an action hero as governor, said Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University at Sacramento. But a good deal of credit also goes to the Alliance for a Better California, composed of 12 unions and Democratic activists who, since the spring, have flooded the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in TV and radio spots that all sides agree have recast the political debate.
The ads feature nurses, firefighters, teachers and police officers hammering home one message: Schwarzenegger is the enemy of these professions. And in a country that still has not forgotten the sacrifices of such first responders following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and is now reeling from the fallout of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the ads have hit home especially because they have gone unanswered.
"The ads have been very successful," acknowledged Karen Henretty, communications director for the state Republican Party. "You turned on the TV, and all you saw was firefighters who truly believed that the governor was going to take away benefits to widows and orphans."
When Schwarzenegger came to power, said Gale Kaufman, the mastermind behind the unions' campaign, "We had nowhere to go. He was a bipartisan governor who was really a bipartisan governor." But once he took on Sacramento's sacred cows -- public service unions -- "he gave us an opening and we've exploited it."
Kaufman seems pleased with her agit-prop and a little befuddled at the wild swings of political fortune. On her desk sits a doll of Schwarzenegger in a pink dress suit and pink pumps, "Governor Girlie Man" emblazoned on the base.
Schwarzenegger is seeking to avoid a defeat in the November special election that could weaken him further heading into next year's reelection campaign. Two Democrats, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly, have already announced they are running and polls put the governor in a tight race with either one.
But political commentators and strategists from both sides of the aisle caution that it is far too soon to start writing Schwarzenegger's political obituary. His life is a Horatio Algier-success story, and he is a fierce competitor.
"I learned most of my lessons from sports," he said Friday, "so, of course, I am going to follow through."
"The Democrats are sniffing glue if they think they've got him beat and are looking at the special election as the nail in Arnold's coffin," Hoffenblum argued.
Indeed, Angelides said in an interview Thursday that he would deal with the state's continued budgetary crisis by raising taxes, a bold position but a move widely seen to be politically suicidal in a state that sparked a nationwide taxpayers' revolt in the late 1970s.