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Now the Hard Part Begins for Governor

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described himself Tuesday as “a salesman by nature.”

“If I can sell tickets to my movies like ‘Red Sonja’ or ‘Last Action Hero,’ you know I can sell just about anything,” he joked in his first State of the State address.

But even for a Hollywood film star whose marketing skills have proved one of his most valuable assets as a politician, promotion of the billions of dollars in government cuts he will propose later this week will pose a daunting challenge.

The full scope of the pain that Schwarzenegger would mete out to resolve California’s fiscal crisis will become clear only Friday, when he releases his budget.

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But that budget is sure to include cuts that could trigger a voter backlash. And in his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger set out on the task of dodging political damage.

For the short term, the question is whether Schwarzenegger can draw enough power from his status as a mega-celebrity to overcome lawmakers’ resistance to his budget and recover from any dip in his popularity.

For the long term, Schwarzenegger’s political interests dictate a fast resolution to the budget crisis to ease his path to reelection in 2006, should he seek a second term.

“It’s kind of like Civil War surgery: If you’re going to take someone’s leg off, then do it quickly,” said Rod Kiewiet, a Caltech political science professor.

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History suggests that approach can succeed. Gov. Ronald Reagan approved a major tax hike in his first year in office, leaving the unpopular move well behind him by the time he was reelected in 1970. Gov. Pete Wilson’s job-approval rating sank to 28% after he raised taxes and slashed programs during a deep recession early in his first term. Yet Wilson, now a Schwarzenegger mentor, went on to win reelection two years later in a romp.

Schwarzenegger’s first political task is to navigate among foes in the Legislature. Last month, it was largely his force of personality that prodded lawmakers into putting his budget measures on the March 2 ballot. His force of personality will again be a crucial tool for the governor in promoting his overall budget.

“The guy has a commanding presence,” Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg said. “He comes across as a leader. These characteristics are enormously helpful in trying to sell bad news.”

The new Republican governor began framing the budget debate on his own terms amid the pageantry of his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature.

He avoided early disclosure of any program cuts that could lead to a public uproar; last month, angry protests led Schwarzenegger to rescind $274 million in cuts he had proposed in services for the developmentally disabled.

Instead of detailing cuts, the governor stuck to a sweeping we’re-all-in-this-together message. His apparent aim: the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature and stand as the greatest obstacle to his will.

“These are cuts that will challenge us all,” he told lawmakers and dignitaries packed into the Capitol’s Assembly chambers. “But we cannot give what we do not have. If we continue spending and don’t make cuts, California will be bankrupt. And a bankrupt California cannot provide services to anyone.”

To guide him around the political shoals ahead, Schwarzenegger will rely partly on the same campaign experts who helped steer Wilson through the budget crisis of the 1990s.

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Wilson’s former media advisor, Don Sipple, and strategist George Gorton are on the team designing Schwarzenegger’s campaign for voter approval of his budget measures in March. Leading the effort is Washington campaign strategist Mike Murphy, who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

One of the measures would authorize $15 billion in debt, which Schwarzenegger is counting on to balance the budget. The other would put spending limits in the state Constitution.

The campaign is likely to feature millions of dollars in television advertising by Schwarzenegger, offering the governor a statewide media forum to portray himself as a champion of California’s fiscal recovery.

Schwarzenegger, though, needs paid advertising far less than previous governors: His fame enables him to broadcast his political message in nearly any venue he chooses. He turns down interview requests by the hundreds. Radio and television producers clamor to book him.

During his campaign, he used that media access to score friendly interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Howard Stern -- and to win free TV time with network anchors Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.

As governor, Schwarzenegger has limited himself mainly to conservative talk radio, a forum that enables him to cultivate ties with his political base.

But now, with an extremely tough budget to sell, Schwarzenegger risks the loss of goodwill he has built with voters as a reformer who crashed his way into the insular state capital.

“This is reality now for him as an elected official and a politician,” said Gale Kaufman, a political strategist. “All bets are off. The campaign is done. Voters now get to deal with him just like they’ve dealt with every other governor.”

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