No longer an action hero, but a potent force
LOS ANGELES — He was supposed to be the new American political idol, an outside-the-broken-system reformer crying "Hasta la vista, baby" to politics as usual.
Riding the voter anger of California's zany 2003 recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger had just the right combination of qualities to get voters to take a fresh look at the Republican Party: celebrity name recognition, charisma, wealth, and a wife of political nobility.
Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and an all-around nice guy, he was expected not just to help rebuild the GOP in the state he calls "Kawl-ee-fornia" but also to soften criticism of the party nationwide - perhaps even to pull California back into contention for George W. Bush in the presidential race.
One year later, as he steps onto the prime-time podium of the Republican National Convention, a more complex portrait has been coming into view. Long lampooned by late-night comedians, the governor is now lauded even by critics as an intelligent detail man. His efforts to bridge partisan gaps have scored major successes, yet chinks have begun to appear in the armor that once seemed invincible.
Most pertinent to Tuesday night's appearance, Mr. Schwarzenegger hasn't put California in play for President Bush (polls show the state safely in the Democratic camp). And while the GOP clearly wants to capitalize on his potential to broaden the party's appeal, his current role in the party nationally is a somewhat awkward one.
"Schwarzenegger always provides a kind of tension for the national Republican party," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Like Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, who are considered party mavericks with appeal beyond the traditional party base, Schwarzenegger has the potential to attract a wide swath of voters, she says. "But they are always concerned about alienating conservative elements of the party should Arnold speak about issues such as gay marriage or abortion."
Because of that tension, the Bush-Schwarzenegger relationship has been cordial, but largely arm's length. Bush did not endorse Schwarzenegger during the effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis (D) by recall vote, and the couple's public meetings have not brought them any closer, analysts say.
Still, Republicans are understandably eager to showcase the governor of America's largest state. With his Hollywood background, business experience, and muscle-building youth, he remains an iconoclast from outside the usual mold. It's a rare, and potentially powerful, blend of charisma and authenticity.
"Schwarzenegger's role as a moderate Republican who can win voters from beyond the party base both statewide and nationally continues to be intriguing," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "He is an immigrant, he is exciting, well-liked, and seen as standing above or outside the usual corruption of monied interests. Those are qualities lacking in many Republican leaders."
Those are also qualities that are being tested in the furnace of Sacramento politics. To some observers, Schwarzenegger is becoming more traditional every day as he cuts deals with lawmakers, and submerses himself in executive-office detail.
During the recall, voters strongly believed that the state was going in the wrong direction. Analysts say Schwarzenegger has turned that around and eased bipartisan gridlock. By taking key issues directly to voters - such as a $14 billion bond measure to keep the government running - he has upped his leverage over state legislators.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger has morphed from an action-figure actor into a credible governor," says Tony Quinn, a Sacramento-based political analyst. "He has picked up very adroitly on how government works, almost to the point of a negative in that now he is trying to do too many things himself." With the state's budget challenges still looming, there's a widespread feeling that Schwarzenegger's biggest tests are yet to come. Pressure to raise taxes, and thus violate a key campaign promise, appears likely to mount.
But he has surprised naysayers before. The US Constitution doesn't allow a foreign-born president, but analysts talk of a possible second gubernatorial term and maybe even a US Senate run in 2010.