By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 1, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 -- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Sen. John McCain's presidential bid Thursday, adding momentum to the front-runner's campaign while further angering the candidate's conservative critics.
Schwarzenegger, who has forged coalitions with California Democrats in recent years, said the senator from Arizona represents "a great future" in which the president would seek consensus on issues such as global warming.
"He has shown over and over again he is reaching across the aisle to get things done," the governor said.
The endorsement came as the three leading Republican candidates -- McCain, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- held events in Southern California after a testy debate Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
McCain and Romney continued their week of clashes at the debate, and both were fighting here for votes before a primary Tuesday, when Republican contests in California and 20 other states could determine the party's nominee.
Campaigning in nearby Fountain Valley at the time of the endorsement, Romney predicted that it will not make much difference. "Their views on a number of issues are very similar. I don't think that comes as a surprise," he told reporters. "Governor Schwarzenegger obviously is a big figure in California. I'd love to have had his support. In most cases, people make up their own mind."
Nonetheless, the governor's backing, which came as he and McCain touted their environmental credentials in a solar panel company warehouse with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at their side, highlighted the delicate balance McCain is attempting. The maverick senator is trying to appeal to the independent and Democratic voters who have powered his victories while he is still courting the conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries.
The move prompted an immediate backlash from conservatives, who cited it as even more evidence that McCain is out of step with the party's stalwarts.
"Arnold coming in really brings the conservative coalition together," GOP strategist Greg Mueller said during a phone interview just before the McCain-Schwarzenegger event. "My view is that there obviously continues to be a rocky relationship between Senator McCain and conservatives."
McCain said that he is "honored" to receive the governor's nod and pledged that, if elected, he would work with him on a new global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions linked to climate change.
"Governor Schwarzenegger, I commit to you, you and I and all of the others who are concerned about our globe . . . [will] hand our children a cleaner planet," he said.
While 21 states will vote in GOP contests on Feb. 5, California boasts the most delegates by far, with 170. It is unclear how Schwarzenegger's backing will affect voters here: A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted last month put the governor's approval rating among state Republicans at 62 percent, his lowest mark in the survey.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institution who served as the chief speechwriter for former California governor Pete Wilson, said that "conservatives in California have a lot of concerns with Arnold." But he added that the endorsement would solidify McCain's standing among Republican moderates and generate positive news coverage.
"It just adds to the perception of momentum and inevitability," Whalen said.
McCain made a point of telling reporters during his appearance with Schwarzenegger that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who supported Giuliani before the former mayor dropped out of the race on Wednesday, endorsed him Thursday as well.
"You will see a flood of endorsements across this country, both liberal and conservative," McCain said, adding that he would work to unify the party. "We need all parts of our party together if we're going to win in November. I believe our party is beginning to realize that."
Less than two weeks ago, Schwarzenegger said he would not endorse anyone in the presidential race. On Thursday, he said that stance changed when Giuliani bowed out. "It's all Rudy's fault," the governor said, laughing, "because both of these men are friends of mine, and that's why I didn't want to endorse anyone."
Since Giuliani endorsed McCain, the senator has been doing everything he can to enlist the aid of politicians who are close to the former mayor. McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection campaign, acted as the go-between and ensured that the governor spoke to McCain on Tuesday after the senator won the Florida primary.
At campaign stops, Romney derided McCain for having what he considers a lack of economic experience. Romney told supporters Thursday that the key question before voters is: Which candidate is best prepared to revitalize the nation's economy? "He says it's not his strong suit," the former venture capitalist said, referring to a McCain comment about economics. "It is my strong suit. . . . When the economy is in trouble, it's helpful to have a person as president who's actually had a real job in the economy."
Huckabee spoke to reporters in San Diego and held a pair of events in San Francisco.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.