Governor Swiftly Turns Campaigner

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Times Staff Writer

Five months remain before California chooses a governor, but Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for a second term begins in earnest now.

The Republican governor will set out today on a statewide bus tour to make the case to voters that he is mastering the office after some costly stumbles, and that there is no compelling reason to hand the job to his Democratic rival. Schwarzenegger is considering airing campaign ads this week, according to people familiar with his reelection bid.

“The choice is clear,” said Steve Schmidt, the governor’s campaign manager. “Arnold Schwarzenegger has held the line on taxes and repealed the unfair car tax.... The state is back from the brink of bankruptcy. The path the Democrats have called for is one filled with the failed recipes of the past: higher taxes, more spending and partisanship.”


Schwarzenegger hopes to use the advantages of incumbency to shore up his support among Latino voters, a crucial constituency, strategists said. And he will try to persuade Californians that he has dropped the partisan persona that undermined his approval ratings and cost him the special election in 2005.

The governor seems to have sidestepped one looming fight: the yearly budget battle with the Democrats, the majority party in the Capitol. Using a surge in tax revenue, he rolled out a revised budget proposal last month that Democrats liked. Quick passage is expected.

The temporary truce comes at the best possible moment for Schwarzenegger and could help restore early perceptions of him as a figure removed from the political scrum.

By one measure, he is gaining traction. Voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats view him favorably now, according to a recent Field Poll. Early in the year, a majority of independent voters disliked the governor, the poll showed.

On Tuesday, a Times survey of voters who were leaving polling places found that more than half had a positive impression of the governor.

“Clearly this is not the same Schwarzenegger we saw a year ago,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “It’s not the person who was unbending, who ... has gone back on promises.”


Indeed, the governor is no longer talking about reinventing Sacramento -- about “blowing up the boxes” of state government and purging the Capitol of “special interests.” Grand plans that can’t claim bipartisan support are in hiatus.

Schwarzenegger -- his name synonymous with big muscles, tank-sized cars and blockbuster movies -- is thinking smaller. His focus has been on such issues as state contracts for small business, developing alternative energy and harsher penalties for sex offenders.

One Republican political consultant close to Schwarzenegger, who asked not to be named discussing internal strategy, said the administration will pursue change “incrementally” -- an approach that has helped the governor’s poll ratings recover.

A Field Poll earlier this month showed Schwarzenegger beating both major Democratic candidates among likely voters: state Treasurer Phil Angelides by seven points and state Controller Steve Westly by two points. Last October, the Field Poll showed the governor losing to both.

“They turned off the arrogance faucet,” Republican strategist Dave Gilliard said of the governor’s largely new team of aides and outside advisors. “He’s been doing things that voters expect their governor to do -- and that was missing the first year and a half or so. He’s definitely helped himself.”

Not that the governor’s reelection is ensured. His campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, told reporters recently that the race would be “very close.” A Field Poll released Monday showed that voters disapproved of the governor’s performance 46% to 41%.


Schwarzenegger advisors have been working to remake his image. They want him to appear more mature, more serious. In a reference to past gubernatorial theatrics, the GOP consultant who requested anonymity said, “The circus has left town.”

The bus tour this week will prove an early test of what analysts predict will be a new emphasis on policy, not spectacle.

Of late, Schwarzenegger has “looked and acted like a governor, and that’s the role he’s been elected to play,” Gilliard said.

To ensure that he has plenty of money to get his message out, Schwarzenegger will keep an aggressive fundraising schedule, as he hopes to collect $50 million for his campaign, political aides said.

And he will help the state Republican Party try to raise $25 million for the race.

Chasing campaign money has left Schwarzenegger vulnerable to accusations that he is no better than the man he replaced: Gray Davis, whose fundraising excesses helped fuel the 2003 recall election.

To help blunt such charges, Schwarzenegger’s staff is talking privately of making good on his promise to clean up campaign fundraising.


During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger said he wanted to ban fundraising during budget season to avoid conflicts of interest.

That idea never came about, but it could be resurrected in the coming months.

A special focus of the governor will be to repair his relations with Latino voters.

About 32% of Latinos voted for the governor in the recall election. But a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed some slippage. Only 25% of Latino voters said they would vote for Schwarzenegger over Angelides and Westly.

In the last month, the governor has hired two people -- one for his gubernatorial staff, the other for the campaign -- whose jobs include outreach to Latinos.

Arnoldo Torres, a Democrat who was hired as a campaign consultant, conceded that the governor’s shop has “work to do.” Latinos, he said, have felt snubbed.

Schwarzenegger spawned resentment by praising the efforts of the Minutemen, a volunteer civilian border-patrol group that President Bush likened to “vigilantes.”

And the governor has never made an extended visit to Mexico -- California’s largest trade partner -- although he has traveled to Japan, China, Jordan, Israel and Germany. Now a trip is in the making.


Aides to the governor are discussing a possible trade mission to Mexico in August, three months before the election. That would mean wide coverage in the Spanish-language media of Schwarzenegger meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Torres, in an interview, said that early in his term Schwarzenegger “lost his way.”

“There was not any communication with the Latino community,” he said.

“The campaign’s attitude is, ‘Mea culpa. What can we do to make it better?’ This governor has tried to govern better and he has begun to govern better. That’s a very promising beginning.”