WASHINGTON — There are many keys to good acting. Understanding the underlying truths of humanity. Stepping outside oneself. Empathy. As an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has never reached too deeply into these pools. That's not a criticism of the sudden leader in California's recall/race for governor as much as it is a fact. Playing a killer cyborg places certain limits on an actor in the range department.
But what Arnold has lacked in DeNiro/Olivier-quality performances, he has certainly made up for in quotable one-liners. There are few actors with such a list of catchphrases. And already, less than one week into his run for California's top office, he has tapped into his bag of celebrity memorabilia vigorously. He's ready to say "hasta la vista to Gray Davis," the man whose job he covets. He is going to "terminate" Mr. Davis and "pump up Sacramento."
And, perhaps sensing that this campaign will call for new material, he has reached beyond his own repertoire. Last week Schwarzenegger said he was "a uniter, not a divider," a line made famous by the current occupant of the White House. And in one interview he reached back to the film "Network." The voters are "mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore," he said, sounding uninspired. (An Austrian-tinged monotone apparently doesn't work well with everything.)
What Arnold has to offer, exactly, beyond a highly quotable governorship, is not yet clear. At the time of this writing, he has thus far refused to answer specific questions on policies or positions, which hasn't exactly helped him in his quest to be taken seriously as a candidate. Yet, with no experience and no concrete positions, people consider him a favorite to win an election seven weeks from now against a list of 100-plus candidates that includes a stripper, a porn peddler, the comedian who plays Father Guido Sarducci, conservative-turned-liberal gadfly Arianna Huffington, and Gary Coleman - who last week said he's voting for Schwarzenegger. No word yet on who the former cast of "Facts of Life" will be supporting.
All of this means the big winners in this whole mess are the people of Florida, who no longer will be considered the nation's top political laughingstock.
Of course, in some sense the big joke of the race has been overblown. There are some experienced, traditional candidates for the office of governor in California. There's Bill Simon, the Republican who lost to Gray Davis nine months ago. There's Cruz Bustamante, Davis's lieutenant governor.
But in the end the real story in California is notArnold or Arianna or even Gary Coleman, it is the names that won't be included on that list of 100-plus candidates. A look at the list shows some up-and-coming politicians, such as Mr. Bustamante, and some looking for a new lease on life, such as Mr. Simon, but few well-known, well-liked power names.
Last week, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, decided to take a pass on a run for the governor's seat. There are, of course, many possible reasons for their decisions.
It could be that the popular Senator Feinstein was following her party's advice in deciding to stay out of the race in the hope of channeling Democratic votes to Gray Davis. And maybe Mr. Riordan, who scored higher than Arnold in polls, just didn't want to get mixed up in the carnival.
But perhaps the real reason is that the governor's job in California is not terribly desirable right now.
Some of the state's $38 billion deficit may be Davis's fault and may be tied to careless spending, but larger parts of it are structural. The big boom of the 1990s, which grew in large part out of the skyrocketing stock market, brought the state unheard-of revenues. The state added programs and as the money disappeared, the demands did not. And California, which rode the tech wave more than other states, was hit particularly hard by its crash.
What's more, the state's road out of its problems is not easy. As the federal government continues to cut taxes, more and more burdens will be shifted to the states, which will be forced to cut services or raise taxes to handle the load. California is not alone in its problems. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found 44 states headed for deficits at the beginning of 2003.
For the next seven weeks, of course, none of that will matter much. Arnold will go around quoting Hollywood classics and shaking hands, and the media will eagerly follow.
Should he actually win, though, there is probably one more movie line he should learn. In the 1972 film "The Candidate," Robert Redford plays a political neophyte who rides popularity and a good campaign team to a Senate seat. On the night he wins, he watches the people celebrating around him and asks, "What do we do now?"