LOS ANGELES — Imagine "The Governator." Imagine the muscles, the macho style of action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as California's swaggering chief executive. Imagine the lead of those Terminator films literally arm-wrestling reluctant legislators, carrying a mostly centrist Republican agenda on shoulders wide as the Golden Gate Bridge.
More than a few of our politicians can, and do, imagine just that.
Because - with a recall movement gaining steam here - someday soon, Californians may be asked to vote on Gov. Gray Davis's future. Whether to keep our largely distant, uninspiring leader - or replace him with a newer model; some great unstained hope who wasn't in Sacramento when we plunged tens of billions of dollars into debt.
Somebody fresh and energetic who could move into the governor's mansion without crippling political baggage.
So why not Arnold? The press suggests he's interested - and maybe he should be; his last film, "Collateral Damage," didn't exactly break box-office records. And who knows whether the strong man's soon-to-be-released "Terminator 3" will achieve blockbuster status?
The last Sacramento actor - Ronald Reagan - was largely washed up in show business when he arrived in the state capital. It was either shill for General Electric, hit the rubber chicken circuit, or wind up as governor. Thus the Gipper cranked up what star power he had left, tapped wealthy benefactors, and went on to defeat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, widely acknowledged inventor of modern California.
Mr. Schwarzenegger, though, is still a bona fide movie star, headlining $60 million blow-'em-ups well into the far side of middle age. Forget about his positions or preparation - did Jesse Ventura have a track record in public finance? - and just think of Arnold as cultural icon; as a publicity magnet for all things California. Because sometimes even brands like California have to remind customers they exist.
As a TV miniseries, America's invasion of Iraq ended any worldwide doubts the US might be less than a going concern. All those smart bombs and bullets didn't hurt, either.
The same with Arnold. Because if voters are looking for a philosopher king, they probably should look elsewhere. In Schwarzenegger, California has the makings of a prime-time action figure. Millions now think of the Golden State as a shopworn resort, a victim of runaway taxation, business flight, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, and crime.
The Governator could change the conversation, and we could say hasta la vista to all that negative cocktail talk about mortgaging our future.
Sacramento could become Arnold World; he might open a branch of his Santa Monica restaurant and sell Governator dolls to tourists. As first lady, Mrs. Arnold - TV personality Maria Shriver - could give us something we've never had before: an official West Coast branch of the Kennedy dynasty.
As for concerns about crime - L.A. remains America's murder capital in absolute numbers - who better to intimidate felons than Machine Gun Arnold?
Arnold knows firepower. He also knows the media. And media savvy helped float Governor Ventura for four years at the helm of Minnesota: The unpredictable ex-wrestler hit the airwaves like a force of nature - on talk shows and as color commentator for a brazen new football league. How many Tonight Show appearances has Gray Davis had?
Replacing our incumbent, a Governor Schwarzenegger might wind up with his own series - Total Recall 2. Not that Arnold could make punishing deficits disappear. Not that he has a sure-fire plan for our schools, our poor, or healthcare. But so many of us live lives infused with pop culture. Hollywood tells us what to wear and what to say. Films dictate romantic overtures and the rules of attraction. Why not pick a governor straight out of Variety?
After all, how many gubernatorial hopefuls have experience saving the world - albeit if only in the movies?
• Joseph Honig, a former CBS and AP journalist, writes for television and is executive producer of the National Lampoon Newsreel.