His image is Herculean, but is he wispy on issues?

Schwarzenegger's two-week search for a solid platform reveals the California candidate's strength and liabilities.

His face adorns an array of magazine covers. He's spawned a line of product tie-ins. Even the blackout barely bumped him off the cable news channels.

But while Arnold Schwarzenegger's image has become ubiquitous since he jumped into the California recall election, his political persona has remained strikingly shadowy.

In the two weeks since announcing his candidacy on the Tonight Show, the actor has offered no policy proposals - or even much in the way of opinions on issues facing the state. He's given no in-depth interviews, and has rarely appeared in public.

This unique position as the recall's best-known and least-defined major candidate is in many ways proving to be Mr. Schwarzenegger's primary source of strength - and weakness.

Certainly, his vagueness on issues has left him vulnerable to attack, with opponents on the left and right accusing him of being unqualified and unprepared. He has also had to disassociate himself from the positions of some of his advisers: After Warren Buffett, an economic adviser to the campaign, ignited a controversy by suggesting that he would favor raising property taxes to deal with the state's budget problems, Schwarzenegger made two statements of strong support for Proposition 13, which caps property taxes.

Scales of character and policy

Yet the lack of a clear political identity has also allowed Schwarzenegger to emphasize character traits over policy matters, and to appeal to a broader swath of voters. Polls show he draws support from Democrats and independents as well as Republicans.

The challenge in coming weeks, analysts say, will be for Schwarzenegger to find the right balance: to define himself enough to quiet critics and give voters a general sense of what he stands for, without being so specific that he drives certain segments of the electorate away.

"He's a blank slate - the moment he starts defining himself, he disappoints some people who have projected onto him attributes that might not be true," says Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. But if he doesn't define himself at all, Mr. Kaplan adds, he'll be vulnerable to charges that "he doesn't stand for anything."

Of course, one reason Schwarzenegger has not yet outlined all his positions may simply be that his campaign is just two weeks old. With his announcement reportedly catching his own advisers off guard, the campaign may not be ready to roll out detailed policy proposals.

In addition, the media frenzy surrounding his candidacy has enabled Schwarzenegger to maintain a relatively indistinct profile. USC's Kaplan describes the swarm of coverage, from entertainment as well as news outlets, as "essentially substance-free. The coverage is mainly, 'Hey, Arnold's running!'" he says.

As a result, the actor has had the benefits of massive publicity - even when he himself has been virtually inaccessible. Nor is the attention likely to fade anytime soon, regardless of how little Schwarzenegger does to court the press.

"He could climb into a cave and close it behind him, and he'd still be on the tube and in the paper every day," says Joe Cerrell, a Democratic consultant.

'Virtual candidate, celluloid figure'

Critics worry that all this may give Schwarzenegger a kind of free pass, allowing him to bypass the usual gauntlet of political reporters and editorial boards, permitting him to gloss over his positions and offer few specifics, while relying on his own celebrity and the ongoing wave of publicity to carry him over the finish line.

"He is essentially a virtual candidate," says Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, and a former Davis adviser. "His presence is known to Californians as a celluloid figure. I don't think his advisers have any intention of putting flesh on the bones."

But given the sharp criticism that is already emerging from opponents, the actor may soon have to begin putting forward some specific proposals, in order to define himself before others do it for him.

As the most prominent figure in the race, he's already become something of a target - and will likely have to defend against an onslaught of attacks in weeks to come. "He's the biggest obstacle, so you know they're going to drop a ton of bricks on his head in the next week or two," says GOP consultant Sal Russo.

The 'white knight' syndrome

Moreover, even if a certain portion of the electorate is content to regard him as a "white knight" coming to save the state, that won't be enough to win in the end, says GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum: "He's still going to have to show he has a reasonable grasp of public policy issues."

Mr. Hoffenblum points to Schwarzenegger's efforts to promote his movies - going from city to city, doing multiple interviews along the way - as a likely model for his political campaign.

He also believes the actor will emerge with "a very specific stump speech." Even if he covers the length of the state in a bus, when he arrives in each town, "he's going to have to say something when he's there," he points out.

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