In this crystalline moment of post-election perfection, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger can convincingly reach out his hand and claim that he wants to govern for every Californian. He is a man with no political baggage, no record of partisanship or broken promises.
Beginning Thursday, however, every decision he makes - from repealing the car tax to environmental-board appointments - will force Mr. Schwarzenegger into something he has so far avoided: alienating voters. Because of Schwarzenegger's focus on leadership over policy throughout the campaign, the direction those decisions might take California remains in good measure a mystery.
Yet the course he charts appears ures to test a political system increasingly dominated by extremes.
For state Republicans brought to the edge of irrelevance by their unyielding stance on issues such as abortion and gay rights, Schwarzenegger's success could mark an opportunity for moderates to recast the party. And for the state itself, the coming months could reveal whether consensus and compromise are possible in a political environment bordering on total dysfunction.
Schwarzenegger's sweeping win Tuesday gives him the momentum he needs if he truly wants to reach out to lawmakers and govern from the center, analysts and strategists say. But if he hews to an imperial agenda of budget fixes and business reforms hinted at a week ago, he could soon find himself blocked into corners, as Gray Davis was.
"We'll know in the first three months whether this is going to be something different, bipartisan, and transformative," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
It appears as if that is what Californians were asking for in Tuesday's election. By a 55-to-45 percent margin, voters chose to recall Governor Davis on Question 1 of the ballot, making him the second governor to be recalled in United States history. On the second question of who should replace Davis, Schwarzenegger took nearly 48 percent of the vote, 16 points higher than Cruz Bustamante.
The margin of victory - and the message - will almost certainly echo to Sacramento. This campaign was built on Schwarzenegger's political biceps - the notion that he alone had the leadership skills and determination to put a chokehold on state spending and special interests. With the Legislature's approval ratings below Davis's, lawmakers would do well not to dismiss the governor elect, analysts say.
"The extent of the win is so great that it creates its own momentum," says Tony Quinn, coauthor of the California Target Book.
What Schwarzenegger will do with that mandate will begin to be answered before he backs a bill or proposes a budget. The first glimpse of his vision for California will come as he appoints advisers and nominates state officials. "Does he pick a moderate? Does he include Independents and Democrats?" asks Professor Cain. "That will tell you a lot about which direction he is going."
It might also give a new insight into the future of California's Republican Party, which endured a Democratic sweep of all statewide elected officers in last year's election. Exit polls suggest a new pragmatism among some conservative voters here, as antiabortion voters actually preferred the pro-abortion-rights Schwarzenegger to antiabortion Republican Tom McClintock, who garnered 13 percent of the overall vote.
Schwarzenegger was boosted to such a landslide victory because he motivated a coalition of centrist Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. For most of the past decade, the party's insistence on a conservative line in social issues has prevented candidates with such crossover appeal from making it into the general election.
Indeed, many analysts suggest that in a Republican primary Schwarzenegger might have lost to Mr. McClintock. "This is a vindication of what political moderates have been saying for the past five years," says Cain. "It tells you that the Republican message [of fiscal conservatism] seems to resonate with the state."
Throughout the campaign, Schwarzenegger laid claim to that platform in the most general terms. Yet clues left along the campaign trail at least suggest a more combative picture of the governor-elect than the one etched by his humble victory speech Tuesday. Even with his mandate, his ability to achieve the 10 goals laid out last week for his first 100 days in office is questionable.
For one, the budget problem remains unchanged. California is still spending far more money than it takes in, and state and federal mandates make it hard to cut spending.
The Legislature meanwhile, has been turned more partisan by the last redistricting. There is also bitterness beneath the post-recall congeniality. Though party leaders played down the partisan nature of the recall Tuesday, some experts suggest that the cycle of political revenge has begun even before a swearing-in that will come by Nov. 16.
Regardless of whether allegations of sexual harassment dissipate, the most adamant party activists will keep a close eye on Schwarzenegger. "There will be a constant threat to Schwarzenegger," says says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. "If someone wants to bring a recall, there will be plenty of Democrats with enough money."