Republican governors are counting on their new California colleague Arnold Schwarzenegger to use his fame next year as a tool for the GOP to raise money and broaden its appeal to moderates across the country.
On the opening day of their annual conference, Republican governors on Friday also described Schwarzenegger as an important asset in pressing Washington for sorely needed budget relief.
"He combines pop icon with being governor of the biggest state in the union," said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. "That's a powerful combination."
But for Schwarzenegger, who took office Monday, the national political stage is far from a top priority as he struggles to gain control of a state mired for three years in fiscal distress.
"The job is within the borders of California right now," said a top Schwarzenegger advisor. "It's a big job with a lot of challenges, and anything else is a distraction."
Schwarzenegger declined to attend the governors' two-day retreat at the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Palm Beach County. Instead, he greeted them Friday by telephone over loudspeakers at a private dinner.
Absent or not, his victory in the October recall election buoyed spirits at the conference. While Republicans also captured the Mississippi and Kentucky governorships in more conventional wins this fall, California was by far the party's biggest prize. Now, after toppling a Democratic governor in a state that leans strongly against Republicans, Schwarzenegger could be a boon to the GOP in 2004, several governors said.
"In terms of raising funds and raising visibility for other Republicans, he'll be a huge addition to our list," said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. "You have the president, you have the vice president, and you have Gov. Schwarzenegger right up there underneath them, in terms of a draw."
Indeed, some Republican governors up for reelection next year were clamoring for the Hollywood film star to campaign on their behalf -- even those from traditionally conservative states where his liberal stands on abortion and gay rights clash with public opinion.
"Any time we can get Arnold in Utah, we clap," gushed Utah Gov. Olene Walker.
Gov. John Hoeven said he would welcome Schwarzenegger to his home state of North Dakota.
"As a matter of fact, I want to extend the invitation right now," Hoeven told reporters.
If Schwarzenegger does campaign for fellow Republican governors next year, he would in part be returning a favor. During the recall campaign, the Republican Governors Assn. spent $1 million on television ads bashing his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
But several governors said Schwarzenegger had good reason to focus on California.
"The best thing he can do right now is demonstrate how a Republican can make a difference for California and really be a role model, kind of like what Mayor Giuliani did for New York City," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who will become Republican Governors Assn. chairman today.
Beyond the 11 governor's races and congressional elections next year, Schwarzenegger could also play a role in President Bush's reelection effort. Political strategists see California as a state that Bush cannot carry unless he wins in a national landslide.
But the state remains a top source of campaign cash, and Schwarzenegger has proved extremely adept at raising money for himself and others. At a California Republican Party dinner where Schwarzenegger spoke a week ago, the party collected $1.8 million -- about six times the amount raised at the same event a year ago, according to state GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim.
"I'm sure there will be candidates, including the president, that would love to have his involvement in the  campaign," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.
A complication is Schwarzenegger's desire for the federal government to pay California money the new governor says the state is due. For the time being, Schwarzenegger said he was building a relationship with the president and would press the demands later.
Beyond any specific campaigns, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said he hoped Schwarzenegger could soften the Republican Party's rough edges. He suggested that powerful Republicans in Congress are too conservative.
"We have to be more tolerant, and I think that's what Arnold shows," Rowland said.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Schwarzenegger could also help a party "that often appears stodgy" to attract young voters.
"In terms of improving the image of the party, the Republicans just received the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he said.
Apart from buzzing about Schwarzenegger, the governors focused on two topics that could figure prominently in the 2004 elections -- a prescription drug package for seniors and gay marriage.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson urged the governors to lobby their state congressional delegations to vote for a Medicare reform package that would provide a controversial drug benefit to the elderly. Several said they would make phone calls and fax letters Friday afternoon.
Several governors also voiced support for amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. That discussion stemmed from a Massachusetts high court decision Tuesday holding that the state's Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to wed.
In Mississippi, opposition to gay marriage is "bipartisan, biracial and any other bifurcation you can think of," said Haley Barbour, the state's governor-elect.
"If necessary," he said, "we would absolutely support changing the Constitution to protect Mississippi and other states from having that imposed on us."