By nearly all accounts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pumping up public enthusiasm in the Golden State. Voter approval is high as Republicans gush and one-time doubters concede that the Hollywood muscleman's gleaming teeth brightened the fiscal gloom, too.
Now, an important litmus test of California's new Republican possibilities is under way: the Senate race between former Secretary of State Bill Jones and Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.
Praised by Republicans but largely unknown to Independents and Democrats, Jones is a leading Republican here and the overwhelming victor in the GOP's March primary. In a state that's cast off many moderates in primaries, Jones - conservative but not far right - was a vocal supporter and campaigner in Schwarzenegger's race. The Republicans that California Democrats find among the most palatable - Schwarzenegger and Sen. John McCain of Arizona - endorse Jones, too.
The fact that Senator Boxer faces a challenge amplifies the question of whether the GOP can stage a Schwarzenegger-led comeback. From now through November's presidential election, analysts say, that's the story to watch: whether the governor's coattails will be as broad as his smile and whether Republicans - whose fortunes have long sagged here - and President Bush himself can ride Schwarzenegger's honeymoon train. Is the movie star's popularity strictly personal, they ask, or a harbinger of further expansion among Republicans promoting his formula for social tolerance and fiscal conservatism?
"There is no question California is enjoying a new era of enthusiasm and possibility because of its historic recall election," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The question is, is this a new era of Republican possibilities or does it go no further than [Schwarzenegger's] popularity?"
To be sure, Boxer has a loyal following, and with over 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, she has a clear advantage - though Republicans say they'll register half a million new voters by November. Though more liberal than most senators, she's a national figure and is considered a formidable campaigner.
For his part, Jones is an eight-year assemblyman and eight-year secretary of state, author of the controversial "three strikes, you're out" law that became a national model. The former rancher and businessman won a second term as secretary of state in 1998 with the endorsement of nearly every major state newspaper. He's considered a specialist in agriculture, trade, and water issues and has received national attention for tightening voting laws.
"The attempt by conservative Bill Jones to unseat liberal Barbara Boxer will be the first big test in California of whether Arnold Schwarzenegger's rise to victory was an anomaly or [if] Republicans are making a comeback here," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "If Jones even comes close, then it's a sign that the Democratic swing of California in recent years may have crested and is headed in the other direction."
In the most recent statewide poll, Boxer comes out ahead by 10 percentage points, which is by no means insurmountable. Part of the hurdle relates to how much money Jones can raise, which pivots on two factors: how Schwarzenegger's popularity holds up as he wrestles with the budget and how much Mr. Bush invests in the state as a campaign battleground.
"[Jones] will bask significantly in the light of Arnold Schwarzenegger as long as people still like Arnold and care what he says and thinks," says Allan Hoffenbloom, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. "[Jones'] candidacy also depends largely on how competitive Bush is here. Bush can't lose by a landslide 1.5 million votes like he did in 2000 and expect all those Kerry voters to pick Kerry and Jones."
Most say Schwarzenegger's popularity is durable. But others feel Bush's sagging fortunes here make it an exceptionally difficult state for him and will discourage his spending much time, money, or political capital.
"Bush spent $12 million here in 2000 and his numbers didn't budge," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll. "There are many other states which are much more in play for them this time around than California. That money is probably best spent elsewhere."
Like Schwarzenegger, Jones is making the return of jobs his first priority, hoping to lure back industries that can provide employment, and thus tax revenue, to solve state problems long-term. Some analysts suggest that Boxer has become an aloof politician, stepping up to represent California in the Senate only at election time.
"We are going to take the message all over this state [that] Boxer's positions are inconsistent with where most voters have moved ... in recent years," says Valerie Watson, chief press person for Jones. "The state has changed and she hasn't."
Some analysts challenge that assessment, citing Sen. John Kerry's 10-point lead over Bush in recent California polls - and following Bush's 12-point loss here to Al Gore in 2000.
"Jones is way behind Boxer right now in a state where most voters still don't know who he is," says Dr. Schier. "From my vantage point, it looks like the political map shows "red" [Republican] states getting redder and "blue" [Democratic] states getting bluer. California is turning deep navy unless Jones, Schwarzenegger, and company can turn that around."