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Schwarzenegger Is Running on Comeback Trail, but Bush Could Still Trip Him Up

ElectionsPoliticsGovernmentRegional AuthorityNational GovernmentGeorge W. Bush

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback continues: A new poll finds him leading his Democratic challenger, with voters happier about both his job performance and the state's direction.

But the poll also contains a cautionary flag for the governor and a roadmap for Democrat Phil Angelides: President Bush would be a heavy burden for Schwarzenegger if Angelides could link the two Republicans together in voters' minds.

So far, that doesn't seem to be happening.

This was the first public survey of the Schwarzenegger-Angelides race since the June 6 Democratic primary, won by the state treasurer in a bloody brawl with Controller Steve Westly.

The statewide poll was conducted June 26 to 30 by the nonpartisan Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State. Interviewers talked to 614 voters. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Schwarzenegger was found to be leading Angelides by 44% to 37%. In March, by contrast, the two were closer, with the governor ahead by 40% to 37%.

A Times poll in late May showed the two virtually tied.

In the SJS survey, each candidate held big leads in his party's traditional strongholds: Schwarzenegger in the Central Valley and Southern California outside Los Angeles; Angelides in L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But more significantly — with four months still to run in the campaign — Schwarzenegger recorded positive job approval numbers for the first time since March 2005, based on various SJS polls. In this survey, 48% of voters approved of the governor's job performance; 41% disapproved.

In March, people were evenly divided: 45% to 45%. In January, only 39% approved; 51% disapproved.

Basically, Schwarzenegger has firmed up his GOP base of support since January while rehabilitating himself with moderates and independents, groups that provide the decisive votes in close elections.

"If the governor maintains this course, he doesn't leave Angelides much room to grow," says Melinda Jackson, an assistant political science professor at San Jose State who helped devise the poll.

"He's getting good political advice and listening to it. He's toned down his rhetoric and working more cooperatively with legislators. That's really paying off."

It's paying off politically because it's producing some good public policy: an ambitious $37-billion bond package for public works, a feud-ending repayment of billions owed schools and a bipartisan, on-time state budget.

Luck also helps: The state is collecting $7.5 billion more in taxes than previously projected.

It follows, then, that voters are feeling better about the state. They're now about equally divided between those who believe California is headed "in the right direction" (44%) and voters who think it's "seriously off on the wrong track" (43%).

In March, the numbers were 43% right direction, 47% wrong track. But the dramatic contrast is with January's numbers: 35% right, 52% wrong.

Indeed, all last year — as Schwarzenegger stumped stubbornly and stridently while promoting his failed "reform" initiatives — voters fretted about the state's direction.

The governor has gotten back on the right track in many voters' minds.

"It's fundamental: Schwarzenegger stopped talking about how terrible things are in California," says Phil Trounstine, director of the SJS survey institute and once a communications strategist for former Gov. Gray Davis. "He's now talking about how fantastic things are.

"Governator III is a different person than Governator II. He's being much more the 'Kindergarten Cop' than the 'Terminator.' "

But Trounstine adds that "negative views about Bush could have a significant effect on Schwarzenegger." And Jackson asserts that "the president and his policies are a drag" on the governor.

First off, only 30% of California voters approve of Bush's job performance; 63% disapprove. Not surprisingly, people who still approve of the Republican president overwhelmingly support the Republican governor. Those who disapprove favor Angelides, although less so.

The presidential issue with the biggest potential for affecting the gubernatorial race is the economy, the pollsters found after dissecting the data. They say the voters' opinion of Bush's handling of the economy is "a powerful predictor" of where they'll line up in the governor's race.

"The economy seems to be playing more than Iraq," says Jackson. "You've got high gas prices and interest rates climbing."

That's why Angelides will be railing a lot about "the Schwarzenegger-Bush policies" of protecting tax breaks for corporations and the rich. Linking the governor with the president could help blunt Schwarzenegger's charges that he's a "tax and spender."

"But only if Angelides can make that link in people's minds," Jackson says. "And right now, Schwarzenegger's not allowing him to do that."

Schwarzenegger is being decent but distant toward Bush. Example: refusing the president's request to send 1,500 more California National Guard troops to the Mexican border, after having already deployed 1,000.

"Things are looking good for the governor," Jackson says.

The race seems like Schwarzenegger's to lose. And he may have learned how not to lose.

*

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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