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Schwarzenegger is unpopular but undaunted

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The fact that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's poll numbers have plummeted to where Gray Davis' were when Schwarzenegger booted him from office might humble an ordinary politician. He'd probably lower his sights. But not Schwarzenegger.

The lame duck governor intends to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda the rest of this year and next while pushing ballot measures in the 2010 primary and general elections.

Details haven't been firmed up, but a "large brainstorming" session is imminent, says Matt David, the governor's communications director. "We know what the math looks like," he adds, referring to the brief time Schwarzenegger has left in Sacramento, 17 months.

Schwarzenegger is scouring think tanks across the nation for "new policy ideas," says his political advisor, Adam Mendelsohn, a former gubernatorial communications director who's now a private consultant. "He's very focused on what ideas might be out there that Californians are not talking about."

The governor himself has been talking about modernizing the state's "horrible tax system" to make it less volatile -- less susceptible to economic booms and busts -- and has called a special legislative session to consider the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission after they're submitted in late September.

He is determined to repair and update the decrepit California Water Project and to scale back the state's generous pension system, at least for new government workers. Also on his plate are political reforms; there's a large menu of possibilities, including an "open primary" proposal already on the June ballot. And he hasn't given up on some sort of healthcare reform, depending on President Obama's success nationally.

Schwarzenegger still is bent on going down in history as a "reform governor." But so far, about all he can point to is retooling the costly workers compensation program in 2004 -- previously a bane to business -- and his fundraising role last year in passing a ballot initiative that will end the legislators' gerrymandering of their own districts.

During the recent budget brawl, Schwarzenegger inserted spending controls into welfare and home-care programs and eliminated some commissions. He calls that "reform," but we won't really know for a while.

As for the governor's ambitious lame duck agenda, some savvy politicos are skeptically rolling their eyes.

One veteran Republican consultant and frequent Schwarzenegger ally, who asked to remain anonymous because he doesn't want to alienate the governor, puts it this way: "I know he thinks he can still sell ice to Eskimos, but he's not there anymore. He suffers from a bit of overexposure. Too much grandstanding. . . .

"His ability to raise money isn't what it used to be. He's been to the well too many times, particularly on ballot measures. I don't think people trust his campaign judgment anymore."

Rob Stutzman, the governor's first communications director and now a political consultant -- he's guiding former EBay chief executive Meg Whitman's campaign to replace Schwarzenegger -- says it "will be tough" for his old boss to win contested battles for ballot measures.

"He doesn't have the political capital anymore to pull something across the line on his own," Stutzman says. "And voters have a bias to not trust anything they think is invented in Sacramento. He now has become part of Sacramento. It was inevitable."

That was illustrated in May when voters overwhelmingly rejected a budget-fix package proposed by the governor and the Legislature.

As for fundraising, Stutzman thinks the business community will continue "to throw in with the governor as long as he's vetoing things they want vetoed." But once Schwarzenegger has signed or vetoed his last bills -- about a month before the November 2010 election -- his ability to tap donors will greatly diminish.

Anyway, Stutzman says, "I can't imagine him having anything on the ballot in November that people would pay any attention to. It'll all be about the governor's race. The business community will be moving on as well -- focused on electing a Republican."

But Mendelsohn counters that "the universal rules for normal politicians don't apply to Arnold Schwarzenegger. He brings traits and styles to this that typical politicians don't have. He's an anomaly. What other politicians cannot do, he is perfectly capable of doing."

Moreover, the advisor adds, Schwarzenegger not only won't be running for reelection; he won't be running for any office. "So Democrats won't have an incentive to block his goals."

Don't count on it. Some Capitol Democrats say they have no reason to make the departing Republican look good. They'll bide their time waiting for his successor, anticipating a Democrat.

Everyone agrees that Schwarzenegger blew his best opportunity to shake things up by not capitalizing immediately on the larger-than-life persona he brought to Sacramento after the historic 2003 Davis recall.

Just before he was dumped, only 26% of Californians approved of Davis' job performance, based on a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Last week, the institute reported that Schwarzenegger's approval was a similar 28%. In January, it was 40%.

The Legislature's approval is even worse, 17%.

Pollster Mark Baldassare largely blames incessant budget haggling for the governor's and Legislature's sinking popularity and says their public images are linked. "People are focused on their inaction during these troubled times," he says. "They need to have some legislative accomplishments -- show they can get things done."

Political attorney Steve Merksamer, a Capitol insider and former chief of staff for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, notes that before anything else, Schwarzenegger must "steer the ship of state through dangerous economic waters, avoiding the rocks."

But Merksamer is upbeat about the governor: "He's got an indomitable spirit, the most optimistic governor I've ever known. He's also incredibly likable.

"Arnold's like that pop-up clown. You keep knocking him down and he keeps coming back up."

The clown needs to make people smile again.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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