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Schwarzenegger needs a boost, but his chances recede with the economy

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As he stood before the cameras in Santa Barbara last week, the freewheeling showman that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be was evident only in his attire.

He was clad in a shirt that was blindingly white, as if daring the ruinous soot from the Jesusita wildfire to soil it. Around him were arrayed workers and officials whose muted workday clothes only emphasized Schwarzenegger's primacy.

He stood behind the lectern marked with the governor's seal, the symbol of distinction earned more than five years ago when he swept into office vowing salvation for California. But he was not what he once was, and he could use a little salvation of his own.

The bombast was gone, and with it the tricks of past years -- the giant green credit cards representing debt he promised to stem, the vats of pseudo red ink spewing from a spigot that he theatrically twisted closed, the wrecking ball dropped on the Oldsmobile as his emphatic end to the car tax.

Passion burst forth, certainly, when he praised the firefighters for their dedication, but it was too easy to remember the vitriolic battles he had with them only a few years ago. When it came to the fate of the May 19 ballot measures he has cast as the only way out of the state's dire financial problems, his choice of words was unwittingly illuminating.

"It's very clear that when the initiatives fail, that it will be $16 billion that will be less available," he said after being asked if the jobs of firefighters like those he had just lauded would be in jeopardy. When.

He caught himself later, alluding to what would happen if the ballot measures were defeated. But in that first answer, offered in a matter-of-fact tone, the optimistic promises of the past seemed distant.

Last week was a bad week for Schwarzenegger, with the release of yet another poll showing the ballot measures that would erase a good chunk of the state's stubborn deficit losing among likely voters. The more voters heard about the measures, the less they liked them, which implies that it will be difficult to craft a path to victory. And the poll confirmed, as they all have recently, that with less than two years left in office, Schwarzenegger is roundly unpopular.

"The difficulty for him is that he knows unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the economy, there really is not a light at the end of this tunnel before his term ends," said Rob Stutzman, an aide to Schwarzenegger during the recall that took him to office and during the early days of his administration.

"That's what happens to governors who have to ride the wave of the economy. The Shakespearean irony is that some of that same effect is what swept him into office."

Another irony: The campaign for the ballot measures took pains Friday to tout the support of the very man Schwarzenegger pushed from the governorship in 2003, Democrat Gray Davis.

If Schwarzenegger's own fate is to some extent out of his hands, the fires, oddly, offered respite. Politicians are caught betwixt when disaster strikes -- ham it up too much and you're using misery for your own political ends; react slowly or not at all and you're ignoring the needy.

But executed artfully, the disaster drop-by accomplishes two things: It bolsters the mood of exhausted emergency workers, and it reminds governors why they wanted the job in the first place. There is an "immediacy," former GOP consultant Dan Schnur said, that is rarely found in the long slog of governance.

"You're not fighting with legislative subcommittees; you're not frustrated by the bureaucracy," said Schnur, who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "You're actually getting things done and seeing the impact of your work on people."

That does not always translate to political success, however, and few if any were predicting that Schwarzenegger's response to the fires would alter the trajectory of the ballot measures. For one thing, disaster struck in Santa Barbara, beautiful but not a major population center. For another, views on Schwarzenegger and the measures seem well set, and voters have already been casting ballots by mail for weeks.

Commentators may point to the experience of Pete Wilson, whose response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake was credited with helping him win reelection as governor later that year. But Wilson also won on the strength of a disciplined evisceration of Democrat Kathleen Brown and on emotions stirred by the anti-illegal immigration measure, Proposition 187.

In the case of Schwarzenegger, a man who has built a fortune and at least three careers on sheer will and defiance, there are no more ballots. He is termed out as governor, has said he will not run for the U.S. Senate and is ineligible by his Austrian birth to be president.

Governors tend to be remembered for a single thing. Wilson, despite his herculean efforts to wrestle the state out of its then-historic deficit, will always be linked to illegal immigration. Davis will always conjure memories of the electricity crisis. Schwarzenegger is left to hope that he is not forever captive of a bad economy.

As the week closed, he was in Los Angeles. Yet he was touting not his own accomplishments but the stimulus plan pushed through Congress by President Obama.

"He still has the chance to end up with a pretty significant legacy," said Schnur. "It's just a different legacy than he envisioned."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more major stories and their implications. Previous editions of The Week are archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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