Schwarzenegger Tone Is Humble in New Ad

Times Staff Writer

With a new poll showing his ballot agenda in jeopardy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday made a sharp strategic shift just 12 days before the election, releasing a new television ad in which he concedes shortcomings on the job.

“I’ve had a lot to learn, and sometimes I learned the hard way,” he says in the 30-second spot, which features the governor speaking directly to the camera. “But my heart is in this, and I want to do right by you.”

Calling his ballot package critical to “reforming Sacramento,” the Republican governor tells viewers in the Democratic-leaning state: “Give me the tools to do the job you elected me to do.”

The new ad, due to begin airing today, marked a dramatic change in tone for the governor, who has long blamed his difficulties on the fusillade of ads fired at him by organized labor.


Underscoring the reason for the switch, the new poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that none of Schwarzenegger’s four major initiatives was favored by a majority of voters likely to cast ballots in the Nov. 8 election. The verdict was especially bleak on Proposition 76, Schwarzenegger’s hallmark ballot measure to restrict state spending: Just 30% of likely voters supported it, while twice as many opposed it.

For a governor whose public image is the driving force in the election, the survey also found broader trouble: Just 38% of likely voters gave him positive job ratings, a steep drop from a year ago. The poll was the first independent measurement of public opinion since the full engagement of campaign advertising began.

The big questions to be answered in the campaign’s final stretch are whether Schwarzenegger can quickly revive his popularity -- or get large groups of voters to overlook their disapproval of him and back at least one of his four ballot measures, said pollster Mark Baldassare of the policy institute.

“That’s really the challenge,” he said.

Earlier polls had found Schwarzenegger’s best chance was Proposition 75, which could weaken his labor adversaries in Sacramento by requiring public-employee unions to get written permission from members each year before spending their dues on campaigns.

But amid a raging television ad battle over the measure, support for it has slid to 46% of likely voters, down from 58% in August, with 46% now opposed. The tight race -- and the political power at stake for labor and its Democratic allies -- makes Proposition 75 a central fight of the campaign’s closing days.

On Thursday, unions began airing a new television ad saying the measure would stifle public workers “but not Arnold’s corporate donors,” an effort to build on prior criticism of Schwarzenegger’s fundraising. It also stresses that union members already have the right to keep their dues from being spent on campaigns.

“Put the brakes on Arnold’s sneaky power play,” the ad says.

Schwarzenegger and his business allies have spent heavily on ads showing public workers saying Proposition 75 would protect them from having their union dues spent against their will on political campaigns they disagree with. Those ads are aimed, in part, at encouraging union members to buck their leadership and back the measure.

But the new poll found that 62% of union members or those with immediate family in a union opposed the measure.

“From our perspective, things are absolutely moving in the right direction,” said union strategist Steve Smith.

Schwarzenegger’s other two ballot measures are Proposition 74, which would scale back teacher tenure, and Proposition 77, which would revamp the system for drawing district boundaries for state and federal lawmakers.

Likely voters were roughly split on Proposition 74, a division that has hardly budged despite heavy union advertising against the measure. But on Proposition 77, just 36% of likely voters sided with the governor, while 50% opposed him.

At a campaign stop Thursday in Irvine, Schwarzenegger said he sensed “great momentum” behind his campaign.

“I feel every day better about the chances of our initiatives,” he said.

The governor’s decline in popularity has been one of the main difficulties of his campaign, constraining his natural inclination to star in his own political ads. He employed that strategy to great success in both the boisterous recall campaign and his 2004 effort to pass two budget measures. His return to appearing in his own television advertising comes just a week after he stopped running other spots featuring himself.

When those Schwarzenegger ads were taken off, his strategists said it was not because Schwarzenegger was a drag on his own campaign. They reiterated that point Thursday as they unveiled the spot that puts the governor back on the air.

“We think the governor is our absolute best messenger for these reforms,” campaign spokesman Todd Harris said.

Labor strategists described the Schwarzenegger zigzag as a sign of “desperation.”

“How many Hail Mary passes do you get in one campaign?” union campaign strategist Gale Kaufman said.

Kaufman also suggested that the new Schwarzenegger ad was timed to deflect attention from the poll.

Schwarzenegger’s new ad is competing on the airwaves with a blizzard of other spots about Nov. 8 ballot measures, including a host of union ads critical of him.

Opponents of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors without parental notification, began broadcasting ads Thursday.

Elsewhere in the poll, the problems facing Schwarzenegger in November and in his 2006 reelection campaign were pronounced. The poll confirmed earlier surveys showing that he had made no progress regaining his image as a centrist above the fray of partisan politics. While 69% of Republicans approved of his job performance, just 31% of independents and 12% of Democrats gave him favorable ratings.

That sharp divide also applied to his four initiatives. None has won a majority of Democratic or independent voters, with overwhelming majorities of Democrats opposed to all four. Republicans, by contrast, favor all of Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures. But since they make up little more than a third of California voters, it takes substantial support from Democrats and independents to prevail in a statewide election.

Also alarming for Schwarzenegger are his low ratings even in conservative-leaning areas of the state: He got favorable reports from just 4 in 10 voters in the Central Valley and in Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in Irvine and Jordan Rau in Sacramento contributed to this report.