Can box office success transfer to voting booth?

Schwarzenegger's decision whether to run for governor may hinge on his new film.

Streets and alleys are cordoned off. Sidewalk crowds press against police tape for blocks. Paparazzi are poised.

Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the real-life counterpart to the 25-ft. cutout of a leather-clad "Terminator" that stands atop the Fox Theater here, steps out of a limo. The crowd, predictably, cheers. Mr. Schwarzenegger's comment, equally predictable, sparks pandemonium: "I told you ... I'll be baaack."

The audience reaction at the movie première of "Terminator 3" this week has some California Republicans hoping that such ready-made popularity could revive the party's fortunes in the state. Mr. Schwarzenegger - long one of Hollywood's biggest stars, but tied recently to several cinematic duds - has hinted in the past he might be interested in a future GOP run for governor. But now, with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis facing a probable and historically rare recall as early as October, a window of opportunity could help muscle the muscleman into the governor's mansion much sooner.

"If he chooses to make a run now during this special election, he will have several advantages over a run during a normal election," says Tony Quinn, a Republican strategist.

An unusual election scenario

Because of the election mechanics associated with a possible Davis recall, a new candidate from either party could win with support from only a small fraction of registered voters, assuming enough candidates entered to divide the total vote. Candidates could also run without an extended campaign, which would mean less voter and media scrutiny.

That would help Schwarzenegger, who has a reputation as a moderate/liberal Republican in a state where such candidates are often thwarted in primaries dominated by conservative voters.

If a recall election were held this fall according to one scenario (or March 2004 in another) it would aid a wealthy, well-known candidate such as Schwarzenegger.

"Candidates usually spend 95 percent of their time trying to raise money so they can get their name out to voters," says Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell.

Not only is the investment of resources far less than a normal three-year campaign, the liability of making campaign mistakes is minimized.

"In just under two months from start to finish, it will be harder for voters to seize on any major gaffes that the candidates make," says Dan Schnur, a former press director for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "That helps a political novice like Arnold."

A private life under scrutiny

But there are also several potential liabilities that go hand-in-hand with Schwarzenegger's Hollywood celebrity. Reports of past womanizing and drug use have circulated for years and would play into the hands of Democratic opponents, if verified.

"Even as we speak, Democratic Party operatives are scouring the tabloids ... to dig up dirt," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Even when he mentioned running a couple years ago, the Democrats leaked some stuff and it drove [Schwarzenegger's] PR people crazy."

Candidate Arnold would also face serious scrutiny of his policy and government knowledge from a California press corps accustomed to celebrity candidacies; from Ronald Reagan and George Murphy to Sonny Bono and Clint Eastwood. Even experienced politicos have often lost in their first statewide runs - including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Gov. Pete Wilson.

"He is going to be coached to say as little as possible on policy matters, but the press here is very aggressive," says Mr. Cain.

"They are going to make it very uncomfortable for him to duck them."

It is also not clear how many other candidates of either party would be in the race, which could dramatically alter the calculus needed for a Schwarzenegger win. So far, leading Democrats have stated they will stay out of the race to back Davis.

Either way, it appears the more the better for the actor. In an April California Field poll, Schwarzenegger placed second (with 17 percent) in a field of six leading Republicans and three Democrats. The only name ahead of him, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has said he would not run. "Arnold benefits from being the nonpolitician in the bunch," says pollster Mark DiCamillo. "When voters are disgusted with the way state government is going, they see outsiders like him as a breath of fresh air."

Previous forays into politics

Analysts say Schwarzenegger's successful sponsorship of an after-school children's initiative last year helped give him experience in politics as well as an activist record, however small.

They also say he knows how to surround himself with experienced handlers. George Gorton, a campaign manager for former Gov. Pete Wilson, was a chief strategist for Schwarzenegger's after-school initiative and appears poised to have a significant role in a gubernatorial bid.

Even if Schwarzenegger isn't well-versed in all the minutiae of governing, some experts say it doesn't necessarily matter. "The reality of today's politics is that if you have a kind of [Ronald] Reagan or [George W. ] Bush leadership style, you don't really need to know a lot about governing," says Berkeley's Cain. "You read your script and pose and let the experienced people run the state."

For now, endless speculation

For now, the big "if" is whether the actor will seize his opportunity. The actor's political handlers say he is waiting to see if recall organizers get the needed number of signatures in time for a special-election in November.

In part, the brauny Austrian-born bodybuilder may also be waiting to see the box office figures from "Terminator 3," which opened Wednesday.

"It would be very hard to walk away from a movie franchise that is making hundreds of millions of dollars," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "On the other hand, if [the movie] tanks he might get the signal that it's time to move on."

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