Arnold's new role: undercover candidate

Another Hollywood star tests the political waters with a kid-oriented ballot initiative; next up, Meathead vs. Conan the Republican?

He portrayed an undercover cop-cum-schoolteacher in the 1990 movie, "Kindergarten Cop." Now he's playing undercover, governor-candidate in a real-life drama to help keep kids safe after school.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, muscle-bound movie star, is both the brains and the brawn behind Proposition 49, the most richly funded initiative on California's November election ballot. Backed by $1 million of Mr. Schwarzenegger's own money and $2.6 million in contributions so far, the measure would earmark up to $550 million in state funds annually for after-school programs – from computer study to arts and reading.

Besides what the initiative can do for kids, say lead political observers, it will test the waters for a future Schwarzenegger run for office, most likely the California gubernatorial race in 2006, when term limits force an open election here.

"Without question, this is to establish a bona fide record for Schwarzenegger that he has some civic involvement and civic record and is not simply another celebrity using his name and money to run for public office," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

This is critical for the Republican Party which, with the recent meltdown of Republican gubernatorial candidate William Simon, is in jeopardy of losing any significant hold on major offices in America's largest state, say political analysts. Mr. Simon won the March primary as a largely unknown candidate and is now faltering dramatically as the public scrutinizes his past business dealings.

"Before the primary, no one knew anything about Simon ... and now that they do, look what's happened," says Ms. Jeffe. "Arnold is trying to avoid the same pattern."

Beyond his movie career, Schwarzenegger has been a leading figure in the International Special Olympics, which involves youth education and health issues. He's also said he'd like to be California governor or US Senator. After keeping his name tantalizingly before the press and public this year, he backed out of the Republican Party primary at the last minute – after leading strategists convinced him he needs a buildup in the mold of another actor-turned-politician, Ronald Reagan.

"Arnold has realized that the political outsiders who have started off at the top successfully are the ones who have spent some time with public policy, with public issues," says California political analyst Anthony Quinn. "Arnold is smart to do that."

Because of his own long-term interest in education and his background as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Schwarzenegger chose education reform as one of his strengths – and it's also a list-topping voter concern. Strategists also note it would help soften the image – by one count, he's committed 275 cinematic murders in films like "Conan the Barbarian" and "Terminator."

Schwarzenegger reportedly researched and wrote the initiative himself after consultations with experts.

"He is the total architect of this from beginning to end," says Paul Miner, an aide to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who is listed with Schwarzenegger as a proponent on the initiative.

Touring as chairman of the president's fitness council, Schwarzenegger says he witnessed city after city in which kids were caught in the cycle of after-school gangs, drugs, and violence – a situation made worse by being unsupervised after school.

Mr. Miner says Schwarzenegger approached this the way he's approached body building and the movie business, "with tremendous discipline and vision. He checked with the best and brightest over what works and what doesn't and came up with something that virtually no one opposes."

Indeed, the initiative has no organized opposition. As written, the statute makes public elementary, middle, and junior high schools – including charter schools – eligible for grants ranging from $50,000-$75,000. It gives priority to schools with predominantly low-income students.

In his own words, audible on his website, Schwarzenegger pleads with possible supporters to pay attention to the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. period for youth.

"This is the danger zone, when children are most vulnerable to end up as teen pregnancies, to commit crimes, vandalize, and do drugs," he says. A study his campaign will release soon shows that for every $1 invested in after-school programs, a $3 social benefit follows – from lower incarceration rates to less vandalism.

Schwarzenegger, at 55, may have entered his own danger zone as an actor, some observe. Although he just signed a $30 million contract for "Terminator 3," he's coming off recent box-office flops and has to compete with younger younger stars from Ben Affleck to Vin Diesel. So, paving a way into politics now makes even more sense.

Some analysts already see a possible 2006 gubernatorial face-off with another Hollywood heavyweight, Rob Reiner. A Democrat, he also paved his way into the political arena by successfully spearheading a 1998 state ballot initiative. He put his film career on hold for two years to chair the California Children and Families Initiative that added a 50-cent tax on cigarette pack sales to generate $650 million a year for child-development programs. Besides success as a director – from "Harry Met Sally" to "American President" – he's best-known for his "All in the Family" role as Archie Bunker's liberal son-in-law. Writers are already savoring the possibilities: "Meathead vs. Conan the Republican."

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