Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was deep into nostalgia when he came here the other day to pitch several hundred Sun Microsystems workers on the four initiatives he is promoting in a Nov. 8 special election.

"Remember," he said, "you sent the Terminator up to Sacramento to fix those problems" -- mounting debts, power blackouts, rising taxes and gridlocked government -- that led to the ouster of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the bodybuilder-movie star's victory in the recall election.

That was only 24 months ago, but, oh, how the world has changed. In a post-rally interview, lighting up a cigar and complaining that the outdoor event had left him "sweatier than I've been since I visited the troops in Baghdad," Schwarzenegger managed to display the same chin-out aggressiveness that marked his action-movie career. "Absolutely!" he shot back when asked if he expected to win the uphill battle facing him in next month's election.

But a poll released that same day last week told a different story. The Public Policy Institute of California survey showed Schwarzenegger's job approval down to 38 percent. An initiative he is backing to make it easier to fire weak teachers is trailing by four points. Another, to shift redistricting power from the legislature to a panel of retired judges, is losing by 17 points. And a budget reform to put government back on track and greatly increase his control of spending -- which he told me is "the most important" of his proposals -- is failing by an astonishing 37 points.

Facing possible defeat on all three of those issues, Schwarzenegger also has endorsed a measure to restrict the power of public employee unions by requiring them to get annual permission from each of their members to use dues for political purposes. But private polls show support for that initiative is also slipping, as the unions mount a TV campaign modeled on their successful effort to defeat a similar but broader restriction in 1998.

Schwarzenegger has made the "union bosses" his favorite target, after a rupture with the Democratic legislature. In his first year, he negotiated with the Democrats to reduce the state's debt, finesse a school financing crisis and reduce the workers' compensation burden he and others said was driving jobs out of California.

But when he balked this year at raising any taxes and instead reneged on his deal with the teachers union to make up the $2 billion in school funds deferred from 2003, the honeymoon ended. As Schwarzenegger told the technology workers here, he first blamed the legislators, calling them "girlie men," but then realized their hands were tied by those "union bosses" who financed their election campaigns.

By targeting the public employee unions, including police, firefighters, nurses and teachers, Schwarzenegger unleashed on himself a year-long $25 million ad campaign that has shattered his once-broad coalition of support, costing him dearly among Democrats and independents.

Only on Sept. 20 did he get his own first two ads on the air, and the people running the unions' campaign say their focus groups show that neither of them is effective. "The one in which Schwarzenegger himself appears gets people saying, 'Why doesn't he fix things rather than just complain about them?' " one labor strategist told me.

In retrospect, some Democratic political operatives say, Schwarzenegger's whole strategy of forcing a special election now, a year before he is up for reelection, was wrecked when his allies messed up an initiative targeting the fat pension benefits that public employee unions had obtained from Davis and the Democratic legislature. "Those would have been hard to defend," one person familiar with polling from last January said. But that initiative was so badly written it would have eliminated survivor benefits for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty, and it had to be withdrawn.

Instead, Schwarzenegger has found himself trying to sell some fairly abstract reforms of the political process. The questions from the audience at Sun Microsystems largely ignored the initiatives, focusing instead on what Schwarzenegger planned to do about real-world problems -- crowded schools, jammed highways, illegal immigration and the rest. His answers -- arguing that structural reform had to precede rebuilding California -- stirred no applause.

Analysts say that instead of riding the wave of public anger at the hapless Gray Davis, as he did in the recall election, Schwarzenegger is struggling against the public view that this whole special election is an unnecessary and expensive indulgence on his part.

No wonder he's nostalgic.

davidbroder@washpost.com