CYPRESS, CALIF. — At the gala ribbon-cutting for the Tiger Woods Learning Center, the world's most famous golfer has just spoken and former President Bill Clinton will soon ascend the podium. But Margarita Moran has brought her daughter to get a glimpse of the speaker sandwiched between them: first lady of California, Maria Shriver.
Dressed in a dark business suit, Ms. Shriver talks about the public-service ideals she learned from her mother. She praises the civic accomplishments of Mr. Woods and Mr. Clinton (admitting her "crush on Bill" at age 16). As she sits down, the crowd of community luminaries and students is still in the palm of her hand, wanting more.
"That's what I like about her," says Ms. Moran. "She doesn't seek the spotlight.... It's about causes she believes in."
These days the spotlight is seeking Shriver because she is emerging - again - as one of the key political advisers for her husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), as he stumps for a second term. Conspicuously invisible during his push last year for four conservative ballot initiatives, all of which failed, she is now back asserting a role in his administration. She has helped to engineer a shake-up of his staff, the selection of a Democratic chief of staff, and is helping to re-create a moderate image for Mr. Schwarzenegger in an effort to reconnect him with independent and Democratic voters this November.
With approval ratings hovering at about 40 percent, the governor needs all the help he can get.
"Maria Shriver is absolutely critical to Arnold Schwarzenegger at this pivotal moment in his political career," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "She is key in getting people in a Democratic state to believe in him and explain his credibility, and she is absolutely rousing in the way she can attract followers to engage on issues she really believes in."
Ms. Shriver was considered her husband's most valuable asset in the final stretch of California's 2003 election to recall former Gov. Gray Davis (D), helping convince Democrats and independents that Schwarzenegger would appeal to them.
Shriver was glaringly absent, however, from the campaign trail before a statewide special election last November. Many political observers said the Democratic Shriver - niece to former President John Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, daughter to 1972 vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver - did not support those ballot measures to cut state spending, curtail political clout of public employee unions, and redraw legislative districts - and voters took notice.
"Now, her hand in recent decisions shows she's back on board, and that his proposals therefore will likely be more in sync with California voters," says Ms. O'Connor.
One such proposal, which Schwarznegger announced earlier this year, is a $222 billion public works bill to boost funding for schools, prisons, crime labs, and environmental oversight. Political observers will be looking to see if Shriver helps him sell the plan to interest groups, lawmakers, and voters across the state.
Since the special election, Shriver has also been instrumental in the shake-up of the governor's management structure, they say. She was probably behind a housecleaning of key Republican advisers, and her imprints are all over the new choices - including a controversial new chief of staff, Democrat Susan Kennedy, from Governor Davis's administration. Shriver's own adviser is also a Democrat and a former Davis adviser.
"Before the announcement of new chief of staff [Susan Kennedy], the governor had a spokes-of-the-wheel style in which a number of aides had clout," says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Now he is shifting to a pyramid structure with Kennedy at the top. As a longtime observer of presidents, Shriver probably convinced him that the spokes-of-the-wheel structure never works out."
Yet Schwarzenegger still has some work to do to win over members of the Republican base: The conservative faction of the state GOP strongly objects to Kennedy's new role.
"Maria has added salt to the wounds of social conservatives who are afraid she will pull Arnold too far to the left and turn off the Republican base from wanting to vote," says Allan Hoffenbloom, a Los Angeles- based Republican strategist.
Kennedy's appointment does suggest a return to his initial centrist image, analysts say.
"Maria has emerged as the new center of power because of the perception that Arnold moved way to the right and failed and that she is helping him lurch back to the middle," says Tony Quinn, a California political historian.
Many do not embrace this move to the center. "There is considerable disquiet by some segments of voters, especially conservatives, about the significant influence of an unelected and unappointed person having influence over policy," says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California. "It causes great discomfort in some GOP circles that Arnold is moving to the center, and they see her as the cause."
Married to Schwarzenegger for 20 years, Shriver is an emotional and political stabilizer for him, Mr. Quinn and others say. Many voters also perceive her to have a sense of fairness and an ability to present an unbiased view of controversial issues, given that she's a broadcast journalist.
Shriver frequently appears in public across the state speaking out on issues she cares about, including teenage obesity, mentoring at-risk youth, preventing domestic violence, and promoting community service. But when she engages with the press and public, she always remains focused on the issue at hand, not her role in politics or her marriage to the governor.
"She will never grant an interview to talk about Maria Shriver, but she will talk about ideas and projects she is working on," says Shriver spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh.
Of course, as a celebrity, Shriver is never far from the spotlight.
"Maria ... explains in some way people's fascination with Arnold, both within California and across the country," says O'Connor. "They are intrigued with how this Republican bodybuilder from Austria can remain married all these years to a member of one of the country's most sophisticated Democratic families. She clearly cares deeply about the greater good and the downtrodden, and that takes the edge off their fears about noncompassionate conservatism."