Even before the final tally showed a crushing defeat for his pet initiatives in Tuesday's election, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was making conciliatory gestures toward the Democratic state legislators he had derided for being in the pocket of unions and liberal special interests.
It marked a full evolution for the actor turned Republican politician who had launched his term with good relations with Democratic lawmakers, only to see those efforts founder. With his popularity plummeting, Schwarzenegger had backed initiatives that would have increased his power as governor and decreased the political clout of his critics, but voters overwhelmingly rejected them.
"I recognize we need more bipartisan cooperation," Schwarzenegger told his supporters at a subdued rally at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, just hours after the polls closed. He ended his speech with a consolation kiss from his wife, Maria Shriver.
Political analysts said Schwarzenegger's challenge now will be to see whether he can mend fences with legislative leaders, restore his political clout and resurrect his political future.
"For the first time in his adult life, Schwarzenegger is staring at a defeat," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and speechwriter for former governor Pete Wilson (R). "I mean the 'Last Action Hero' bombed, but he still got $20 million. But this is a real sock in the gut. The question is, how does he recover from that punch?"
Schwarzenegger staked his personal prestige on the vote, turning Tuesday's special election into a referendum not on his initiatives but on him.
Schwarzenegger's measures would have given him the authority to unilaterally cut the budget when revenue did not reflect projections, taken power to draw legislative districts from the legislature and given it to a panel of retire judges, required public employees to give permission for their dues to be spent on politics, and extended the time it would take for teachers to receive tenure.
Polls showed that the more the governor campaigned, the worse his initiatives did.
California's voters rejected all eight initiatives on the ballot Tuesday, including one that would have put new regulations on the power industry and another that would have required doctors to tell girls' parents before performing abortions.
After a successful first year in office hammering out a budget compromise with the legislature, Schwarzenegger moved too far to the right in a state that likes its Republicans moderate, analysts said.
In January, he began attacking nurses, calling them a "special interest group" and in short order alienating teachers, firefighters and police officers. Their unions united against him and launched a withering ad campaign. Representatives of the California Nurses Association hounded Schwarzenegger, holding 107 rallies and following him to eight states and Washington. More than $260 million was spent on this election, the most expensive in California's history.
"Last night, the voters said, 'Hey, get back to Sacramento and do the job you should,' " Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said Wednesday. "The governor heard that message."
Schwarzenegger telegraphed his first move -- a shift back to the political center -- Tuesday night. Conceding defeat, Schwarzenegger sounded like a Democrat, enthusing about "roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, more affordable housing, more affordable energy, more affordable water." Aides confirmed Wednesday that the governor is preparing a major program to rebuild California's sagging infrastructure. He has also vowed to reintroduce legislation to speed the construction of 1 million homes heated by solar power -- also popular with Democrats.
Democratic Party leaders, for their part, were also offering olive branches, vowing to work with the governor.
"I have been counseling my caucus not to misinterpret the defeat of the governor and thinking think it's an endorsement of us. It's not," said state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, one of California's leading Democrats. Although the governor's approval rating hit 33 percent last month, Perata noted, the legislature's is even lower.
Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders will meet Thursday to search for common ground before he heads to China for a trade mission Friday.
But experts predict that common ground may be in short supply. Next year is an election year in California, and suddenly Schwarzenegger is vulnerable.
"It's going to be difficult for Schwarzenegger to recover," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll. "The Democrats think they can beat him now, so naturally they will try to make him look bad."
DiCamillo stressed that Schwarzenegger is down but definitely not out. Ronald Reagan and Wilson both lost special elections and went on to future victories. And the two Democrats who have announced their intention to run against him, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly, are political unknowns.
Gray Davis, the man Schwarzenegger unseated two years ago in a recall election, knows what a tough competitor he is.
"I am sure it was a very painful evening," he said, "but Arnold is fond of saying he'll be back, and I think that might be true." Davis said if Schwarzenegger reverts to the bipartisan style that was successful last year, "then it's even money that he'll get reelected."
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.