Amid the throngs that have come to listen to him speak, Arnold Schwarzenegger has just made a connection. Here, on the plaza of a southern California mall, Governor Schwarzenegger is talking about a $15 billion bond to help bail California out of its budget mess.
But that's not what Kiefer Freeman hears. He hears a vision for California's future. When the Republican governor speaks of Californians as "us" - not Republicans or Democrats - Mr. Freeman, a cook who normally votes Democratic, feels that things are finally moving in the right direction. "See, that's what I like," says Freeman. "He is a positive, charming, and funny guy that people like, and so he gets things done."
They are traits that have helped Schwarzenegger rally his bond proposal from scant public support weeks ago to probable passage in elections Tuesday - a turnaround that one expert calls "historic." And they have made Schwarzenegger a political force unlike any California has seen since the days of Ronald Reagan.
The comparisons to the former president and California governor are now no longer the stuff of actor-turned-politician trivia. They are a statement of the new governor's considerable clout. If Reagan was the "Great Communicator," Schwarzenegger could be the "Great Motivator," using equal parts charm and savvy, optimism and pragmatism to persuade a stubborn Legislature and a fickle electorate.
Even if he succeeds Tuesday, the depth of the budget crisis might eventually overwhelm these bright beginnings in renewed partisan bickering. But for now, his ability to connect with cooks and lawmakers alike is offering California - and the country - hints as to how to negotiate a political environment increasingly flavored by populism.
"He is the most effective salesperson for ideas since Ronald Reagan," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those who have worked with both, "say he's even better."
In many ways, Schwarzenegger is the perfect political animal for California at the beginning of the 21st century. His moderate social policies and conservative fiscal ones are a mirror for most of the state, and his movie-star fame gives him a public profile no other state lawmaker can match.
But interviews on "Access Hollywood" tend to carry little weight with Sacramento's political class. Rather, it is Schwarzenegger's character that has given him gravitas in the Capitol.
Part of it is his ease around other people. After three successive governors who did everything short of build a bunker around themselves, Schwarzenegger is ever the socialite, chatting up lawmakers and handing out his trademark cigars.
"Why this governor has gotten off to a good start is because he is comfortable with people and he likes a dialogue," says state Rep. Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic chair of the Budget Committee. "He's comfortable with himself and you can tell he likes what he is doing."
It is a can-do mentality that pervades all Schwarzenegger does, driven by will and the sheer force of his personality. Just last month, a survey by the Field Poll found Schwarzenegger's bond measure losing with only 33 percent of the vote. Last week, following a TV ad campaign, support had risen to 50 percent.
"It's a historic change," says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll in San Francisco. "Obviously, it's a major transformation, and there had to be something there to spur it. What it is is the TV ads: It's Governor Schwarzenegger - his image speaking directly to the cameras. It's a simplistic read, but that's what happened."
Amid rampant skepticism in modern government, the turnaround suggests Schwarzenegger has managed to gain the rarest political commodity: voter trust. "Arnold is honest," says Mazuki Crosby, a computer specialist at the rally. "You don't have to wonder where he is coming from. He tells you what he feels."
That honesty has not always played out as a strict adherence to the facts. Like Reagan, "he is loose with the facts when he needs to be," says Professor Cain. But it has surfaced as a directness almost entirely absent during the past political generation, both voters and legislators say.
Jim Brinkerhoff, for one, can appreciate that. "When [Schwarzenegger] got in there, he just started taking care of business, 'Bam! Bam! Bam!'" says Mr. Brinkerhoff, a pipe fitter who came to rally only because he needed to make a service call. "Everyone else lollygags, and he started handling it."
As politicians are criticized for seemingly needing to consult a poll to decide which brand of toothpaste to buy, Schwarzenegger's image as a decisive leader has been a central part of his appeal. A second recent Field Poll found that 61 percent of respondents believed that Schwarzenegger does what he thinks is right, while only 28 percent thought he did what was popular. By contrast, 57 percent in a 2002 poll said that recalled Gov. Gray Davis did what was popular.
Howard Dickstein would agree with that. He's one of the lawyers negotiating with the governor's administration about how much money tribal casinos should pay to the state. The discussion has gone on for years under several governors, but Dickstein says Schwarzenegger is different.
"He's focused on what he perceives is in the best interests of the state," he says. "He's less concerned with weighing all the political possibilities than doing what he thinks is right."
Yet Dickstein makes it clear: Schwarzenegger is no ideologue. "He wants to work out agreements and get deals done," Dickstein adds. "He's much more direct and business-oriented than the last two governors."
So when the governor wanted state schools to defer $2 billion in payments this year in order to balance the budget, he played no games. He simply called the head of the state's largest teachers' union into his office and said he needed the money.
What surprised Barbara Kerr, the president of the California Teachers' Association, was his willingness to listen to her demands. "My first reaction [to his demand] was to tell him what we wanted," she says.
Some things, he agreed to. Others he said they would have to talk about, but "it wasn't contentious," Ms. Kerr adds. "It was, 'We're going to work to get this done.'"
Eventually, they did, and the CTA agreed to the deferral. The deal received far less attention than the 11th-hour negotiations between Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature, which put the bond measure on Tuesday's ballot. But Schwarzenegger's willingness to work with perceived opponents is seeping into the public consciousness.
"Just how he has comported himself has impressed me in the last 100 days" has impressed me, says Loren Robinson, a passerby at the rally who says she did not vote for Schwarzenegger. "He just hasn't angered anyone, and he seems like he is trying to keep a moderate, middle-of-the-road perspective."
Perhaps too middle-of-the-road for some. While Schwarzenegger has reached out to moderate Democrats, some of the more liberal members of the Legislature have felt left out - and Schwarzenegger cannot cobble together the 54 votes needed to pass a budget in the assembly without at least some of them.
They are members of the Assembly like Sarah Reyes, who says she has never met with the governor, either individually or in a small group. "He is only talking to the legislators he thinks are friends, rather than engaging everybody," she says.
She acknowledges that the governor's attention has had to be elsewhere - particularly on the bond measure. But with budget negotiations now moving to the forefront, he has to make time to talk to legislators like her. "I understand that the governor has been busy trying to get his house in order," she says. "But don't lose sight of what you need to do to be successful down the road."
This, experts suggest, will be the true test of Schwarzenegger as the Great Motivator. The bond measure had virtually no opposition. Any budget deal almost certainly will. Says Professor Cain: "When the hard choices need to be made, will he make them, and will he still remain popular?"