Schwarzenegger Needs More Than GOP Can Give

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Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opening steps in the campaign for his November ballot measures illustrate the fragile balance he must strike to strengthen his Republican support while rebuilding his image as a centrist.

Schwarzenegger’s challenge was on clear display over the weekend. On Saturday in Orange County, he roused a state Republican convention crowd with tough talk on blocking higher taxes, battling “union bosses” in Sacramento and stopping illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.

On Sunday in South Los Angeles, the Republican governor adjusted his message. Speaking to parishioners at a black church, he played up his wife’s Kennedy family pedigree, government aid to fight poverty and the struggle for “equal education.”


In a state where barely one in three voters is a registered Republican, Schwarzenegger has no choice but to reach beyond his party base.

But with the Nov. 8 special election just over seven weeks away, he must find a way to do that without turning off conservatives, his only strong bloc of support after months of declining popularity. This raises the question: How much of a Republican can Schwarzenegger afford to be?

The governor “desperately needs support beyond his own party” to win passage of four measures he is backing on the November ballot, said Mark Baldassare, research director at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“He was able to do it two years ago in the recall election, and that’s what he’s trying to do again,” Baldassare said.

The task is far more difficult for a sitting governor.

In the recall, candidates ran with no party labels. Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood fame made him an instant favorite. With no record as an elected official, he was easily able to define himself as a centrist in sync with mainstream California, a fiscal conservative with moderate-to-liberal views on such social issues as abortion, guns and gay rights.

Soon after the election, Schwarzenegger solidified his capture of the political center by leading a bipartisan campaign for twin measures on the March 2004 ballot to clean up the state’s budget mess. Both won overwhelming voter approval.


But since then, the governor has aligned himself more closely with his party. Most visibly, he championed the reelection of President Bush, a highly unpopular figure in California, in a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in New York. He also campaigned for Bush in Ohio.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has grown increasingly combative toward Democrats who control the Legislature and even more so toward their main benefactor, organized labor.

The union counterattack, a relentless blast of television ads against the governor, has undercut Schwarzenegger’s popularity. Most damaging is his loss of support among the moderate Democrats and independents who often sway statewide elections.

Now, with the fall initiative campaign opening, the Legislature has passed bills that push Schwarzenegger to choose between consolidating his Republican base and widening his appeal. In each case, analysts say, he has opted for sustaining Republican support. Specifically, he has indicated that he would veto bills that would raise the minimum wage, legalize same-sex marriage and grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

On all three issues, Schwarzenegger has sent mixed signals on his personal views. But business leaders, who have poured millions of dollars into his campaigns, fiercely oppose a higher minimum wage. And passions run high among conservatives on the other two issues.

“If he turned his back on conservatives on illegal immigration and gay marriage, I think he would absolutely lose that base,” said Inga Barks, a Schwarzenegger backer who hosts conservative radio call-in shows in Fresno and Bakersfield. “It would be devastating to him.”


“He hangs onto the conservative base by a string anyway,” she added, citing qualms over his social views and his support for billions of dollars in new state borrowing. “Mostly, what appeals to conservatives is that he’s the only guy who can win,” she said.

Schwarzenegger’s name will not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Nonetheless, he has turned the election into a referendum on his leadership, casting Propositions 74, 75, 76 and 77 as crucial steps in what he portrays as a broad plan to clean up state politics and impose fiscal discipline.

At the state Republican convention in Anaheim on Saturday, Schwarzenegger reaped the benefits of his conservative appeals, with loud chants of “Four More Years!” interrupting his luncheon speech. (He announced Friday that he will run next year for reelection.)

Outside the convention’s hotel ballroom, Steve Eichler, 54, was distributing brochures promoting the Minuteman squads of armed volunteers patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration. Recalling Schwarzenegger’s recent praise of the project, Eichler called Schwarzenegger “very positive for the conservative movement.”

“All in all, I’m very pro-Arnold,” he said.

Some Democratic strategists believe Schwarzenegger has taken his courtship of conservatives too far.

“He’s fallen into one of the most dangerous traps for a statewide Republican candidate, and that is to become the captive of the Republican base, which is far, far to the right of the average voter in California,” said Democratic strategist Eric Jaye.


Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant on the team making TV ads against Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures, said he expected the governor’s rhetoric against “union bosses” to backfire. He questioned the wisdom of Schwarzenegger’s political advisors in using such tactics in a state dominated by Democrats.

“I think they ought to move to South Carolina, some place where you can sell that stuff,” said Carrick, a native of that politically fierce Southern state. “Union bashing has never worked in California.”

As a Republican in California, Carrick added, Schwarzenegger must distance himself from his party in the same way that Democrats in the conservative South run from their party’s “tax-and-spend” stereotypes.

“He’s got to do the functional equivalent from the opposite ideological perspective,” he said.

Republican strategist Kevin Spillane said Schwarzenegger could easily reach out to moderate voters by pointing to Democrats he appointed to top state jobs, his support for stem cell research and his steps to protect the environment.

“He certainly has the ability to communicate to the electorate that he’s not a conventional Republican,” Spillane said.


Schwarzenegger did, indeed, mention stem cell research and the environment as he campaigned last week for his ballot measures. He also repeatedly invoked the Kennedy family heritage of his wife, Maria Shriver--although not in his speech at the Republican convention, where a vendor was selling bumper stickers mocking her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)

Schwarzenegger also reached beyond his GOP supporters on Sunday with his stop at the Crenshaw Christian Center, although he was invited by its Republican minister. It was his second visit to a black church since he took office in November 2003, his spokesman Darrel Ng said.

With several thousand African Americans in seats surrounding Schwarzenegger as he spoke in the Faithdome church hall, the scene produced TV images that contrasted with those of his speech before the mainly white Anaheim crowd.

His remarks, too, were a long way from his Saturday speech against “union bosses.” Instead, he stressed his support of social service programs. He recalled a speech by “my father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who started the Job Corps, the Peace Corps, legal aid to the poor and worked during the Kennedy administration.” Shriver, he said, urged students to “tear down that mirror” and “look beyond and you will see the millions of people that need your help.”

“He challenged the students,” Schwarzenegger said. “That had such an impact on me.”

Schwarzenegger went on to tout his record on education spending, hotly disputed in television ads featuring teachers. (The state’s schools budget has risen on his watch, but he broke a deal with education groups to raise minimum required spending to a set amount.) He also proclaimed the importance of improving public schools in all parts of the state.

“I’m talking about equal education,” he told the crowd, touching off a round of applause. “Not just for some folks good education, for others not. I’m talking about equal education.”