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Far From Left Coast, Many See Schwarzenegger as Mr. Right

Times Staff Writer

At the Roanoke County GOP’s annual Shrimpfest, the subject was November’s national election. The crowd and speakers were as spicy as the fish, spitting out fiery, conservative opinions against abortion, gay rights and restrictions on gun ownership.

But as these southwest Virginians watch this week’s Republican National Convention, many said, the speech most are interested in hearing is tonight’s address by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a self-styled moderate. That’s because from afar, Schwarzenegger looks to many very conservative Republicans like one of their own.

“I like him. I wish we had him here in Virginia,” said Polly Johnson, a 78-year-old retiree who sits on the state Republican central committee and helped organize the event this month. “He’s such a strong conservative on the issues.”

Schwarzenegger, in fact, supports abortion rights, favors a number of gun control measures and has said he has no personal objections to gay marriage. Asked about the governor’s statements on such matters, Johnson said she hadn’t heard them and expressed disbelief: “Deep down, he just comes across as a conservative.”

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Schwarzenegger’s convention speech tonight will provide him, for the first time since he took office, with an opportunity to speak to a national television audience from a purely political platform. As his appearance neared, the clamor to hear or glimpse California’s governor grew in New York City’s convention haunts. Reports of Schwarzenegger sightings abounded early Monday, even before the governor’s plane took off from California. Three Republican groups sent out news releases saying that Schwarzenegger would appear at events on Sunday and early Monday -- even though he did not arrive in New York until late Monday.

His speech has been billed as a way for the GOP to show a more moderate face to the country. But as Vinton’s Republicans indicated, many of his more centrist views on social issues have been drowned out by the gun-toting images from his movies.

Aides to the governor say Schwarzenegger intends to use the 15- to 20-minute address as an introduction. He will endorse Bush’s reelection but focus on his own journey as an immigrant from socialist Austria to proud Republican.

The governor also probably will take the opportunity to describe what he sees as his successes on fiscal issues in California: workers’ compensation reform and a budget without new taxes. Aides hint that he is unlikely to mention his more moderate positions on social issues in any detail.

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That approach is not new. Schwarzenegger’s emphasis on his fiscal positions -- combined with his tough-guy image and hard-line rhetoric, such as his recent description of Democratic state legislators as “girlie men” -- has helped project a more conservative view of him nationally than in California. A recent CNN poll found Schwarzenegger less popular among Democrats nationally than he has been in other surveys in California, where his moderate positions are better known.

In a carefully choreographed campaign of national media interviews he conducted this summer, he talked up his stance on taxes and his desire to make California business-friendly. Only when asked directly does Schwarzenegger offer his views on social issues.

At the convention too, Schwarzenegger will not go out of his way to court moderates, though some of his appearances will certainly underscore his centrist tendencies. He is not scheduled to attend any meetings or parties put on by Republican groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans -- a gay rights GOP organization -- that had hoped the party would moderate its social platform.

Instead, he will stick to familiar venues during his three-day visit, the estimated $350,000 cost of which is being paid by corporations, including drug companies who oppose healthcare related bills that soon will land on his desk. He plans to visit a Harlem school to highlight his support for after-school programs, attend a tribute organized by the motion picture and recording industries and drop by a lunch for the California delegation at Planet Hollywood.

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Trying to build suspense, Schwarzenegger has been tight-lipped about the exact contents of his speech. Aides say he has spent two months working on it with former Reagan speechwriter Landon Parvin, who was credited with Schwarzenegger’s inaugural and State of the State addresses.

The governor’s communications director, Rob Stutzman, said Schwarzenegger will “share what he’s shared with voters in California as to why he’s a Republican, and to give a personal story of why he’s chosen to be in the Republican Party.”

Schwarzenegger gave a similar address to the California Republican Party convention in Los Angeles last September. In it, he recalled seeing Soviet tanks in Austria when he was a child during the post-World War II occupation of the country. (Schwarzenegger lived in the British zone.) He also described how he left Austria and became a Republican while watching Richard Nixon’s speeches during the 1968 presidential campaign.

“I’m a conservative because I believe communism is evil and free enterprise is good,” Schwarzenegger said in that speech.

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Schwarzenegger has said that his convention speech will underscore his support for Bush. “I will be, again, showing my 100% support for the Republican Party and also for President Bush. I think that he ought to be elected again,” he said on a national radio show this month.

Yet at other times, Schwarzenegger has offered less than full-throated backing for Bush. He has said the president needs to do more for California to win over state voters. And although Schwarzenegger spoke at a Bush fundraiser this summer in Santa Monica, he has yet to campaign with him outside of California.

Politically, Schwarzenegger is walking a tightrope: playing the loyal Republican without too closely embracing a president who has low approval ratings in California. The level of support he’s already given Bush has been enough to draw criticism from California Democrats.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger’s choice to stand with George Bush speaks volumes about his values in life and his view of the country,” said California Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat who is expected to run for governor in 2006. “This governor wants to make it clear that when it comes to the national Republicans, he’s one of them.”

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Regardless of what he says about Bush, Schwarzenegger’s speech will give him a chance to promote his months in office to an audience that is far more used to seeing him act than govern.

“Completely aside from what he says about Bush, the governor’s goal in this speech is to sell his credentials as an effective governor,” said GOP strategist Dan Schnur. “Californians have gotten used to the idea that he can lift small buildings and sign workers’ compensation. But do most people outside California know he’s a moderate? Of course not. Most people outside of California still think he’s a cartoon.”

If so, it is a cartoon for which people here in Vinton, a town of 7,782 on the city of Roanoke’s southeastern border, have fallen.

More than 200 Republicans paid $20 per ticket to attend the county GOP Shrimpfest at a senior center in the middle of town, across the parking lot from the Vinton War Memorial. Many here said they had heard more about Schwarzenegger than any politician in America. Some said they were fans of his movies. A few had spotted news reports that Schwarzenegger ordered two pairs of shoes from Italian shoemaker Silvano Lattanzi just for the convention.

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“You hear just so much about him -- little things here and there -- on television about what he’s doing,” said David Helmer, 62, a retired Norfolk Southern railroad manager who now works at a nearby train museum. “He sounds like a breath of fresh air. You know where he stands.”

Yet the imagery often runs counter to Schwarzenegger’s actual positions -- such as on the issue of guns, where his support for controls seems to have been overwhelmed by his movie persona.

Hank Gregory, a retired General Electric engineer who was taking tickets at the door, said that “you can see from his career that he’s tough on guns, that he’s for the NRA, for the pro-life people.”

Hoaihuong Thi “Tee” Quinn, who works in marketing for GE in nearby Salem, said she sees political messages in his choice of movies. “Twins,” the story of two brothers who result from a scientific experiment gone wrong, has an antiabortion message, she said.

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“I’ve seen his movies. I listen to him on talk shows. I heard him talk about girlie men. That is conservative,” said Quinn, a 45-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who would like to see the Constitution changed to give the Austrian native a shot at the presidency. “We as Republicans have to be more into people’s faces and not so conciliatory. We have to be strong on what we believe.”

Even Republican officials here who know of Schwarzenegger’s more moderate stands cut him slack; some expect him to grow more conservative as his political career continues and he appears more on the national stage.

“I’m a little disappointed in his being pro-choice rather than right-to-life,” said Ray Ergenbright, 56, the revenue commissioner in the city of Staunton, Va., and a delegate to the Republican convention. “But I think that has to do with his state. We don’t understand so much of what California does and says.”

Some Virginia politicians seem eager to borrow from Schwarzenegger’s political playbook.

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Kevin Triplett, a NASCAR executive who is running for Congress here, disagrees with the California governor on nearly every social issue, but nevertheless wants to emulate him.

“He’s an example to the party, that someone can come in without holding office and make an impact,” Triplett said. “Plus, he’s Arnold. And that plays well anywhere.”


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