As his Democratic opponents flail away at each other, incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger is pursuing a simple strategy for keeping his job: being governor.
In the last few months he has tackled such decidedly unglamorous issues as flood protection, immigration reform, fish farming and the crumbling state of California’s roads, schools and bridges. Working with the Democratic-run Legislature, the Republican governor has won support for a bipartisan rebuilding program that voters will consider in November.
Blessed with an unexpected revenue gusher, he produced a generous budget popular with many Democratic interest groups -- if not fiscal watchdogs -- as well as a substantial majority of the public. Pouring billions of extra dollars into education, he has sought to mollify the powerful California Teachers Assn., while pleasing voters perpetually worried about the public schools.
Schwarzenegger has also transformed himself stylistically.
Gone is the macho swagger, the satin jackets, publicity stunts and cheesy props -- wrecking balls, fountains flowing symbolic red ink -- that often suggested that his governorship was a lark or an extended ego exercise run from a Hollywood soundstage. The larger-than-life action movie hero who announced his candidacy on the “Tonight Show” has gone virtually dark for weeks at a time.
In short, Schwarzenegger is dressing and behaving more like a button-down chief executive, reflecting a cognizance on the part of the governor and his campaign team that if he is to win a second term it will be on the basis of substance, not celebrity.
It is a lesson from last year’s election debacle, according to some who have spoken to the governor about his disastrous effort to muscle through a series of ballot measures that voters roundly rejected.
“Getting beyond the theatrical baloney, he learned that governing is about planning and a methodical approach,” said one occasional Schwarzenegger advisor, who did not want to be identified revealing his conversations with the governor.
The change in tactics and end of Schwarzenegger’s campaign burlesque have already yielded some political benefits.
Opinion surveys, including a new Los Angeles Times poll, show the governor’s approval ratings have improved from the trough they were in last fall. In the latest survey, 44% of registered voters approved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance, compared with 37% in October.
A survey released Thursday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed a similar rise in the governor’s approval ratings, making him perhaps the only Republican incumbent in the country to have gained ground in the last few months.
“He’s certainly in better shape as a candidate than we thought he would be six months ago,” said Terry Christensen, a San Jose State political scientist who has written textbooks on California politics.
Still, Schwarzenegger has a considerable distance to travel on the path to political recovery. In the Times poll, for instance, a daunting 47% of registered voters said they probably or definitely would not vote to reelect Schwarzenegger in November.
“I just don’t think the state is moving forward as good as it should be,” said Ralph Sewell, a 53-year-old computer technician and political independent from Lakeside, in San Diego County, who agreed to a follow-up interview after responding to the Times survey. “The schools are a problem.... A lot of people are just angry with him.”
Indeed, Schwarzenegger has clearly suffered lasting damage from last year’s special election, in effect having dug a hole from which he has yet to fully emerge.
For starters, he alienated voters who now show every sign of political burnout after trudging to the polls six times in the last four years. He antagonized the state’s formidable labor unions, which remain unforgiving despite the governor’s recent overtures.
“We are moving on in terms of policy,” said Barbara Kerr of the California Teachers Assn., which led the opposition to Schwarzenegger in 2005 and recently settled a school funding lawsuit against the governor after he came up with added billions for education.
“That doesn’t make him the person we want to be governor,” Kerr said. “Our members are not going to forget the special election and the time and the money, the things that were said.”
Perhaps more significant, Schwarzenegger has raised doubts about his credibility by changing gubernatorial personas the way he used to shape-shift in the movies: from the centrist of the recall election and his first year in office to the elbow-throwing Republican partisan of the special election to the problem-solving moderate of more recent times.
Mark Baldassare, research director of the Public Policy Institute, pointed to the findings of his latest survey, which turned up strong support for Schwarzenegger’s budget and infrastructure rebuilding plans -- but not for the governor himself.
“Maybe what people are looking for is some consistency, something more than just one act here or one act there,” Baldassare said. “I don’t think they’re quite at the point where they trust him.”
Of course, the general election campaign has yet to begin; part of Schwarzenegger’s recovery strategy has been to do his job as governor and stay above the eye-gouging and hair-pulling that has become the primary campaign between Democrats Phil Angelides and Steve Westly.
After the June 6 primary, too, the choice will no longer be hypothetical but rather one warts-and-all candidate versus another. “No matter who it is,” Schwarzenegger campaign manager Steve Schmidt said, “there’s going to be extremely clear choices.”
Schwarzenegger and his aides may take comfort from recent history, which suggests that a governor does not have to be popular, or even do a bang-up job, to win a second term in Sacramento.
In 2002, on the day he won reelection, Democrat Gray Davis had a job approval rating of just 39%, making Schwarzenegger’s numbers look impressive by comparison. And there is still more than five months of rehabilitative effort to go.