Standing on an elevated stage, the cooking contest judge sampled fresh tuna prepared with California walnuts and figs. Beneath him, more than 200 Japanese photographers and TV camera crew members waited to record his reaction.
“Delicious,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger intoned.
He moved on to try a cake made with California oranges and raisins. Cameras clicked in unison as fork met mouth.
“California products are so delicious,” the governor said Thursday in a hotel ballroom at a reception dubbed “Taste of California.”
In his first overseas trade mission, Schwarzenegger has stuck reliably to the script, pitching California as a dream destination for thrill-hungry tourists, profit-seeking investors and connoisseurs of food and wine.
Back home, the governor is known for his tendency to veer off-message, surprising audiences with an improvised line about “girlie-men” legislators or Democratic “losers.” But not here. Meeting with California reporters, Schwarzenegger was asked about the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He steered the discussion back to his home state.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I only think about California. The key thing is I’m here to promote and promote and promote. Market, market, market. This is what I know how to do and I know that it pays off.”
The four-day visit has the logistical complexity of a presidential appearance and the production values of a Hollywood film.
Before the governor’s arrival in the ballroom, oversized video screens displayed a montage: The governor and First Lady Maria Shriver walking on a beach; pictures of California grapes; Schwarzenegger announcing his candidacy on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”; clips from action films showing a robotic Schwarzenegger with an eye missing; and a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then a blank screen except for one word in big block letters: “ARNOLD.”
Soon after, Schwarzenegger mounted the stage as the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” blared in the background.
For all the sizzle, the governor is downplaying hopes that the visit will yield concrete trade deals right away. He met with executives from Toyota Motor Co. on Thursday to persuade them to build a plant in California to build the hybrid Prius.
Schwarzenegger reported that the meeting was promising, but he also said the company was considering other states, notably Kentucky, and he hinted that it may be difficult for California to compete. Corporate decisions on this scale are based on hard calculations about the cost of land, labor and leases, he said. Still, the governor said the meeting was helpful in forging a relationship that may pay off.
“We did not make a proposal,” Schwarzenegger said. “We just wanted to let them know that they should consider California seriously as a place to expand and build a plant, and if they go in that direction we’ll work with them and do everything possible.”
With a small army of advance staff and senior aides deployed here, Schwarzenegger has taken pains to see that his message is not diluted. Aides barred two German journalists from sitting in on an interview that Schwarzenegger gave to the California press corps, possibly to ensure that the questions focused primarily on the state.
“I’ve traveled twice with President Bush, and we got the same access as everybody else,” said Marc Hujer, a Washington-based correspondent for Suddeutsche Zeitung. “No one asked us where we came from or if we were German or American. We had the same access. People who made the way over got treated the same way.”
In that same spirit, Schwarzenegger aides tried to prevent two California TV reporters from filming the governor after the “Taste of California” event.
One said an aide told him that so much money was spent staging the reception that Schwarzenegger’s office did not want to risk any other footage being used instead. In the end, the governor’s staff relented and allowed the interview.
Schwarzenegger’s blitz through the city continued early Friday with a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Though California growers would like to sell more goods in Japan, Schwarzenegger said before the meeting with the prime minister that he would not broach trade and tariff issues that are the jurisdiction of President Bush.
“He’s the prime minister and I’m the governor. So I’m not the president of the United States and I cannot negotiate for America,” Schwarzenegger said. “There are a lot of things that President Bush can do that I can’t do as governor.”
At the meeting, the two men had a brief exchange in front of a crush of cameras. “You’re very popular,” the governor said.
“You too,” the prime minister replied. “More popular than Bush.”
Schwarzenegger gave the prime minister a framed Elvis Presley movie poster as one of his gifts.
The two men met for about an hour. Afterward, Schwarzenegger spoke to a largely Japanese press corps.
“I had a terrific meeting, a friendship meeting with the prime minister, and we had a wonderful discussion about the great relationship we have with Japan and California.... He still thought that I looked like a Mr. Universe, which I am not.”
One Japanese reporter then asked him if he would flex his muscles for the cameras. Schwarzenegger declined.
Schwarzenegger later toured a local grocery store that displays California wine and produce. Shoppers and supermarket workers squealed delightedly, applauded and jumped up and down when he entered the store.
Schwarzenegger examined some California figs and told the store owner: “Always give it the best shelf space. I will be making periodic inspections. Unannounced, I will be coming in here.”
The governor was scheduled to attend a reception at the U.S. Embassy on Friday night hosted by Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr.
Schwarzenegger’s reception has been warm. Japanese audiences know him from his movies and TV commercials. A Japanese TV host who interviewed the governor on the day of his arrival wouldn’t let him leave the studio before Schwarzenegger looked into the camera and said: “I’ll be back.”
“I feel like Japan is my second home,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd at the ballroom. (Before campaigning for Bush in Columbus last month, Schwarzenegger described Ohio the same way.)
Takao Komine, a Japanese movie director, said the Japanese appreciated Schwarzenegger’s previous visits to the country to promote movies. Now, “his product has changed,” Komine said, but “I think he’s the strongest product salesman here in Japan.”
A dissent came from 27-year-old Mariko Watanabe, a writer for a Japanese food magazine, who said that younger Japanese are disenchanted with Schwarzenegger because of his support for Bush.
“I used to be a very big fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger when I was in high school,” she said. “I used to think he’s very tough and a very big hero. But he’s from the side of the Bush party.”
Schwarzenegger, the cook-off contest judge, was disciplined to the end, making no secret of his bias.
“There will be no losers,” Schwarzenegger said at the start. “There will be only winners. Because all the meals ... will be prepared with California-grown ingredients.”