Schwarzenegger Hears Rumbles From the Right

Times Staff Writer

With the vote on his reelection just over 12 weeks away, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faces a wave of conservative unrest that threatens the steady political recovery he has made this year by widening his appeal beyond his base of Republican supporters.

To keep conservatives in line, Schwarzenegger campaign operatives have quietly launched efforts to rally support among Christian fundamentalists, gun owners and other Republicans who have long been wary of the governor and backed him only grudgingly.

His stands on illegal immigration, the state’s swelling debt, gay rights and other matters continue to rankle many of them, and his high-profile courtship of Democrats and independents risks repelling them further as the campaign intensifies.

Schwarzenegger faces no danger of a broad defection of conservatives to his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Phil Angelides; polls show they overwhelmingly favor the governor.

But their tense alliance with Schwarzenegger, combined with a foul election climate for Republicans nationwide, could spell a low conservative turnout in the Nov. 7 election. And if what is now a wide Schwarzenegger lead over Angelides narrows after Labor Day, as many analysts expect, low conservative turnout will loom as a key peril for the governor and a prime source of hope for Democrats.

“For Schwarzenegger, the question becomes: Can he get the Republican base to come out in large numbers and enthusiastically support his candidacy?” said Mark Baldassare, research director of the Public Policy Institute of California.

The gap between Schwarzenegger and his party’s conservative wing will be on display this weekend at a state Republican convention in Century City.

The governor, whose lunch speech Saturday will be the showcase event, has urged the party to join him in supporting $42 billion in public construction projects on the November ballot, but delegates are tilting against some of the bond measures to protest his heavy reliance on state borrowing.

“He’s not a fiscal conservative, and he’s not a social conservative, so there’s a lot of uneasiness,” said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative state party offshoot.

In a state dominated by Democrats and the independents who often side with them, Schwarzenegger has no choice but to appeal for support beyond his party. But each time he does, he feeds a potential conservative backlash.

“When you walk the political high-wire act in California, as one has to do, you bend over in one direction and you’ll fall hard,” said Larry N. Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University.

Among Schwarzenegger’s most visible moves to the center this year were his call for a rise in the minimum wage (despite twice blocking such an increase) and new steps against global warming. He also has taken pains to distance himself from President Bush, most recently by steering up to $150 million into stem cell research a day after Bush vetoed a bill to expand federal support for such work, which religious conservatives oppose.

Most disturbing to many conservatives has been his stand on illegal immigration: Though the governor has put National Guard troops on the border and blocked driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, he supports a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for those who pay taxes, learn English and wait behind legal immigrants. “It’s just one more policy issue where he’s out of step with conservatives,” Spence said.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger has reminded conservatives of his refusal to raise taxes and his rollback of the car tax increase that enraged voters during the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis.

He has also taken stands against four November ballot measures that would increase taxes: tobacco taxes for healthcare (Proposition 86), oil taxes for alternative-energy research (Proposition 87), property taxes for schools (Proposition 88), and corporate taxes to finance political campaigns (Proposition 89).

On social matters, Schwarzenegger has also kept in sync with conservatives on ballot measures that would increase penalties for sex offenders (Proposition 83) and require parental notification when minors seek abortions (Proposition 85).

In other recent gestures of solidarity with conservatives, Schwarzenegger named former Rep. James E. Rogan, a manager of former President Clinton’s impeachment, as a Superior Court judge, going out of his way to announce the appointment two months before the position opened. He also fought to stop the removal of a 43-foot-tall cross from a war memorial on public land atop Mt. Soledad in San Diego.

“I just want to say it is really great … to see this wonderful cross up there,” Schwarzenegger said on a visit to the hilltop last week.

Meanwhile, to drum up support for Schwarzenegger among evangelicals, the state party has hired Ben Lopez, a lobbyist for the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, a group that seeks to outlaw abortion and roll back gay rights.

Lopez and Anna Bryson, statewide coalitions director for Victory ’06, the party’s November election operation, plan to meet next week in the Sacramento area with roughly 200 conservative ministers — the first of several such gatherings to promote the governor, Bryson said.

“The governor believes strongly in family values,” she said.

Bryson has also asked the National Rifle Assn. to endorse Schwarzenegger, a gun-control supporter, and hired GOP operative Rodney Stanhope to plug Schwarzenegger’s candidacy among gun owners. The NRA has not taken a position in the race.

Yet for all that, many bridle at Schwarzenegger’s leadership, even if they see no acceptable alternative.

“He’s got me over a barrel, so it’s a little frustrating,” said Inga Barks, a tepid Schwarzenegger supporter who presides over conservative radio talk shows in Bakersfield and Fresno. Barks objects to the rise in state debt under the governor and was furious at him for ordering state money into stem cell research. “That’s my money he’s giving for a cause I don’t approve of,” she said.

“He’s really shown us no reason to vote for him,” said Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, a conservative group that will sponsor a Century City rally Saturday to pressure Schwarzenegger into vetoing several education bills supported by gay groups. “He’s very anti-family and liberal.”

Schwarzenegger advisors say the governor will have no trouble maintaining the strong conservative support he needs to win. They note that polls this summer have found that his support among Republicans and conservatives was much stronger than Angelides’ support among Democrats and liberals.

“The reality is, there’s only one candidate who has a problem with his base, and that candidate’s name is Phil Angelides,” said Steve Schmidt, manager of Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign.

Matt Dowd, chief strategist of the campaign, said opposition to Angelides is likely to motivate many conservatives to vote for Schwarzenegger regardless of their level of enthusiasm for him.

“You have to have a for, and you have to have an against,” Dowd said.

Still, Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book election guide, sees the depressed mood of Republicans nationwide as the biggest potential peril for Schwarzenegger — even larger than the qualms of conservatives about his policies.

In California, Quinn said, national political tides were important forces in the elections of Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1966 and Gov. Jerry Brown in 1974, and padded the victory margin of Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.

This year, many California Republicans are unhappy over Bush’s immigration policy, high gasoline prices, the Iraq war stalemate and other matters, and that, Quinn said, could lead many to skip voting. For Schwarzenegger, “that is a real concern,” he said, “and it’s not something he can do much about.”