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Time to be Arnold again

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS THAT Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has run out of political capital just two years after successfully unseating Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election. The governor’s poll numbers have tanked, along with support for his three ballot measures in the unnecessary Nov. 8 special election.

After arm wrestling in the political trenches with Democrats and “union bosses,” Schwarzenegger appears mortal after all. Worse, he has become a politician just like “them.”

Now -- two months before the special election and at least five months before the legal deadline for declaring for the 2006 election -- Schwarzenegger has announced he will seek a second term. This is a sign of his political mortality, the experts say. Throw in the depleted state of his campaign funds and the situation appears desperate.

Those ready to write Schwarzenegger’s political obituary should remember that he is not a conventional politician and this is not a conventional time. Schwarzenegger still has tremendous personal magnetism and political appeal, and he has a real shot at reelection if he ignores the bad advice he has been getting from operatives who have smothered the Schwarzenegger mystique. It’s time for Arnold to be Arnold again, and follow his own moderate instincts.

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Democrats had hoped to bury the governor in the special election with a stream of TV attack ads financed by their union supporters. There hope was to discourage Schwarzenegger from seeking another term. With no other strong GOP candidate on the bench, the Democrats aimed to pluck the governorship back a year from now with one of their two major candidates, Treasurer Phil Angelides or Controller Steve Westly. But with Schwarzenegger in the race, regardless of how Nov. 8 turns out, next year offers the juxtaposition of the governor cruising to renomination in the June primary while the Democrats slug it out for the chance to challenge him.

To win a second term, Schwarzenegger needs to forge a campaign that will appeal to a broad spectrum of Californians, not just the Republican right. He needs to lift the political dialogue out of the trenches, now dominated by the stridency of both extremes. In other words, Schwarzenegger needs to recast himself as the above-the-fray independent.

The Katrina catastrophe is a clarion call for strong executive leadership in all states where millions of residents defy geography. The governor should strive to improve the state’s disaster preparedness. He should shore up the fragile levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Schwarzenegger should also focus on fixing California’s deplorable transportation infrastructure, and improving public education. If that requires additional revenue, so be it. Californians have little tolerance for wasteful state spending but can be rallied to pick up the tab for meaningful public projects that will improve their lives.

Yes, state government is convoluted and dysfunctional. But it is not broken. It can work if it has strong leadership advancing a sensible, pragmatic agenda. Voters are tired of tirades against this or that special interest. They want, and deserve, government that serves them.

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