Fire crisis plays to the governor's strengths

SACRAMENTO -- Crisscrossing the region on foot and by air to handle the most overwhelming challenge of his administration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week has been the optimistic and omnipresent face of the wildfire response: consoler to the evacuees, debriefer to the media, cheerleader to the firefighters and personal liaison to the federal government.

On Tuesday, he went to the fire lines at Lake Arrowhead, led Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on an aerial tour over San Diego, visited burned-out residents at Qualcomm Stadium, held a briefing in Santa Clarita and invited President Bush to California. Wednesday brought five more news conferences, including in Los Alamitos and Spring Valley. Today he is slated to chaperon Bush's visit to the state.

From the moment he set foot in the ruins of a Malibu church Monday morning, Schwarzenegger has seemed more at ease among the panicked crowds across the scorched Southern California landscape than in the meeting rooms of Sacramento during months of wrangling over the budget and healthcare.

At every turn, he has drawn an unspoken contrast between his on-the-spot presence and the failures following Hurricane Katrina -- emphasizing that the state has done everything in its power to help -- and making public his letters and personal entreaties to Bush.

Commanding the fire effort has played to Schwarzenegger's old strength as a world-famous celebrity thriving in the limelight and to his political preference for decisive action with immediate results, those who know him say.

"It's real-life drama," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's former government communications director. "There's a difference between what's pretend and what's real, but all of the performing and the bodybuilding and the movies prepared him to feel very comfortable performing in real-life dramas."

The governor has remained in public view in the last three days more than he has in the last few weeks and months, when he has struggled without success to advance proposals on the state's water shortage and healthcare. He vacationed during a budget crisis and flew out of state three times during special sessions he called.

Just before the fires, with little to trumpet, Schwarzenegger resorted to promoting the signing of legislators' bills. Now, the fires have pointed out an uncomfortable political reality: for a government leader, natural disasters can have restorative qualities, too.

"If he does the right things throughout this crisis, 2007 isn't going to be remembered as the year they didn't do healthcare or water reform," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst. "It's going to be remembered as the year that he took on Southern California's wildfires."

In addition to scheduling nonstop news conferences, television appearances and interviews with national media outlets, Schwarzenegger's aides have posted on the state website photo essays of him surveying the charred landscape.

"I have to say I love this," the governor said Wednesday afternoon while walking around the cots at an evacuation center in a high school in Lake Forest, as displaced residents photographed him using cell phones and disposable cameras. "This is a time where people really need help and support. The key is following through." He signed autographs on napkins and notebooks, asking residents, "Do you have enough food? Do you have enough water?"

Earlier Wednesday, at a news conference in Los Alamitos, Schwarzenegger said he was there "to see firsthand of what's going on, see the fires, see the aftermath, and see the burned-out places, see some of the places where people have to stay overnight." He spoke of making calls personally to get more cots and blankets for evacuated residents.

"That's what action is all about," Schwarzenegger said. "I mean, this is what you do where there is a case of an emergency. We all have to work together and I'm a hands-on guy that goes around and does those things."

Schwarzenegger is treading well-worn ground. As governor, Pete Wilson dealt with so many disasters that jokes arose about the jacket and chinos he had at the ready. His vigorous response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake helped him win re-election later that year. And, aiming at the presidency, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is riding the reputation he earned responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco lost a tremendous amount of political capital from public perception that they had not tended to residents suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Blanco did not run for reelection.

Wilson, in an interview, said he had dealt with "22 major natural disasters in the first term alone."

"Nobody looks for this as an opportunity to look good because the cost is enormous," Wilson said. "Having said that, if things are well-handled, I suppose it does reflect well."

As the fires have raged, Schwarzenegger has brought other politicians to share in the spotlight. On a plane ride to survey the ruins Tuesday, he invited Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), who is embroiled in a campaign spending scandal, and Steve Poizner, the Republican state insurance commissioner who is considered a potential candidate for governor.

Ultimately, though, Schwarzenegger is at the center. Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said that people would inevitably compare the crowds at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego with those at the Superdome in New Orleans.

"I dare say that Gov. Schwarzenegger is trying to take the high road," Whalen said. "It is just remarkable how positive he has stayed here despite all the forces of nature that would tempt him to be otherwise."

The governor has had testy moments when the state's response was questioned. Asked by an ABC News reporter Tuesday about criticism of air resources deployed in Orange County, Schwarzenegger snapped, "It's a bunch of nonsense." And when quizzed about comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, he waved a hand at evacuees at Qualcomm, saying, "All you have to do is just look around here and see how happy people are."

Times staff writer My-Thuan Tran contributed to this report.