LOS ANGELES — With his Austrian accent and a bag full of cinematic one-liners, he jumped off Hollywood's silver screen in 2003 to "terminate" the fiscal woes and mismanagement of America's largest state.
Two years later - and one year before he runs for a second term - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is now facing the biggest moment of truth in his short political life. Most experts say, it will probably determine which of his two most famous rejoinders will best describe his political future: "I'll Be Back" or "Hasta la vista, baby."
In throwing the full weight of his stature behind four initiatives on the ballot in Tuesday's special election here, Mr. Schwarzenegger is using a populist, bypass-the-legislature tactic that has worked well for him in the past in small tests. Now, though, his agenda is much broader: He's asking voters for the tools he says he needs to carry out the spending reforms he has promised since the 2003 campaign. The election will show how willing voters are to expand his powers, in part determined by how satisfied they are with his governing to date.
"My sense is that what is riding on this election for Arnold is basically everything," says Tony Quinn, a veteran Sacramento-based political analyst. "[He] called the special election. He drafted the measures. He has outlined the agenda ... this is all about him."
Of the eight citizen initiatives on the ballot, Schwarzenegger is backing four: a cap on state spending, a new way to accomplish congressional redistricting, restrictions on the use of union dues for political purposes, and a teacher tenure measure.
Given the governor's ambitious agenda, the opposition this time is more fierce. Public-employee unions and a coalition of teachers, firefighters, police, and Democratic lawmakers have been vigorously campaigning against the measures since Schwarzenegger called the election last June. Indeed, the election results will likely not only affect Schwarzenegger's ability to govern but also frame the 2006 gubernatorial campaign.
With both sides having a tremendous stake in Tuesday's election, high-profile politicians including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts have stumped here. The campaign is breaking cash-flow records, and spending is expected to total between $200 million to $300 million - with millions flooding in from outside the state.
Two of Schwarzenegger's initiatives are of particular interest because, if passed, they have the potential to alter the national political landscape should other states then follow California's lead.
Proposition 75 would require public-employee unions to obtain written consent from members each year before spending their dues on political campaigns. The unions oppose the measure.
Proposition 77 would give a panel of three retired judges the job of redrawing congressional district boundaries so that they become more competitive, a provision Democratic and some GOP state legislators are fighting.
"There are large national movements afoot about redistricting and union dues that are looking to this referendum ... for momentum," says Steven Schier, a political scientist in Carleton College in Minnesota. "If either measure wins or loses, it will have dramatic consequences for whether these national movements move ahead or get stopped in their tracks."
Recent public opinion polls show uneven support for Schwarzenegger's four proposals (see chart, right).
Even the special election itself has triggered a backlash from some voters and interest groups. More than 50 percent of voters think the election is a bad idea, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. With the state facing a $6 billion to $10 billion deficit, many object to the election's high cost, projected to be about $55 million. Union groups and Democrats have urged citizens to vote "no" on all four measures to reject what they call a Schwarzenegger power grab.
It didn't start that way for the actor-turned-governor who came into office two years ago with soaring popularity. But he sidelined Democratic state lawmakers and alienated them by appealing directly to voters, most notably for a $14 billion bond provision that kept the government operating.
"He has treated the legislature as if they are an unnecessary burden on his agenda, and adopted the frat boy tactic of publicly humiliating people by calling them 'girlie men,' " says Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (CNA).
Schwarzenegger's approval ratings, once as high as 69 percent, have plummeted to 40 percent, according to polls.
His critics attribute his decline in the polls to alienating the CNA; he pushed to raise the patient-to-nurse ratio, changing the decade-in-the-making law. He also angered teachers by borrowing $2 billion from the state treasury, allocated to their budget. Firefighters, too, took issue with his attempt to procure widows' pensions.
Public-employee unions have hammered Schwarzenegger for taking millions in political donations from utilities, HMOs, drug companies, and other corporations.
A perception that the governor has become a "Manchurian candidate" propped up by the deep pockets of corporations may be what has hurt his standing with voters, political analysts say.
"Voters who once bought his story that he came to rebuild California by fighting special interests now feel deceived," says Larry Berg, founding director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California here.
In recent weeks, Schwarzenegger has fought back via town-hall meetings and TV ads. In one, the actor-turned-politician says, "I've had a lot to learn, and sometimes I learned the hard way. But my heart is in this, and I want to do right by you."
Yes No Undecided
Prop. 74 49% 50% 2%
Limits public school teacher tenure
Prop. 75 50% 49% 2%
Restricts union dues for political campaigns
Prop. 76 49% 49% 2%
Caps state spending
Prop. 77 44% 53% 3%
Removes redistricting duties from legislators
Source: Survey USA (Oct. 29-31)