Schwarzenegger looks to rebuild power

The celebrity California governor, gearing up for 2006 reelection bid, aims to craft a more centrist image.

Recover. Reform. Rebuild. As a bodybuilder, that was Arnold Schwarzenegger's method to sculpt eye-popping muscles. As a governor, it was his three-part plan to fix California. Now, it might be his prescription for political survival.

After dedicating his first year in office to economic recovery, Governor Schwarzenegger (R) tried to make 2005 the year of reform. That effort ended when voters rejected all four initiatives he promoted in last month's special election. Having failed to reform the state, he promptly reformed his staff - and his rhetoric. But hiring a Democrat as his new chief of staff and pushing for an estimated $50 billion bond measure to improve state infrastructure have left some of the governor's conservative allies feeling betrayed.

The backlash is a sign of tensions that could intensify as the governor ramps up for reelection next year. At one level, his struggle to appeal broadly to voters while keeping core supporters happy is a dilemma shared by virtually every politician.

But Schwarzenegger's case is unique because it goes to the heart of his political identity. Is he truly a Republican, who happens to share some Democratic values? Or is he a hybrid candidate - part fiscal conservative, part social liberal, part libertarian, part populist, and all celebrity?

Even as he aims to reassure his anxious political base during a meeting with state GOP leaders Thursday, some observers are asking: Would Schwarzenegger be better off running for reelection as an Independent?

"Running officially as an Independent candidate would allow him to reestablish his political base at the center of the spectrum," says Dan Schnur, one of the state's top GOP strategists. "But even if he remained registered as a Republican, he's still going to run as a centrist and as an independent."

For now, Republican Party leaders are standing by their man. "He's done a great job for this state, and I think at present time we stand by that," says Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party. "We hope that he retains his decision to [run again] as a Republican."

Mr. Sundheim and others are meeting with the governor Thursday to discuss the woman he picked to be his new chief of staff, Susan Kennedy. Ms. Kennedy has been an activist for liberal causes and was a top aide to former Gov. Gray Davis (D), whom Schwarzenegger ousted in the recall election of 2003. The personnel change stunned Republicans, who worry that her appointment signifies more than just a fresh face, but a new policy direction as well.

"It's safe to say that conservatives are concerned, probably even worried, with an extremely hard-line liberal as his chief of staff," says Kevin Jeffries, chairman of Riverside County Republican Party. "We're concerned what kind of influence [Kennedy] will have on his policy and his future agenda."

Schwarzenegger played down the partisan irony of her appointment, emphasizing her public-policy experience. "Susan is a hands-on, action-oriented person who gets things done," he said.

Getting things done, analysts say, is what the governor needs to do to rebuild his political power. Passing legislation through the state's liberal - and even less popular - legislature was easier to do when Schwarzenegger enjoyed sky-high approval ratings. In August 2004, his poll numbers were at 65 percent. In the past few weeks, they've been in the mid-30s.

That's why Schwarzenegger is working hard to recapture the independents and moderate Democrats who helped elect him, analysts say. Hiring members of Gray Davis's team is one small way to project a centrist, bipartisan image.

But he's going further. The massive bond measure he's pushing conjures up the policies of - and nostalgia for - California Gov. Pat Brown (D), whose public projects helped shape California in the 1960s.

It's all part of Schwarzenegger's effort to win back the center of the California electorate, which was alienated by this year's special election, says Matthew Baum, a professor of political science at UCLA. "If I were advising him, I'd say, if you don't revamp your agenda, you're done," he says. "The agenda you were running on was shot down in flames."

But revamping the Schwarzenegger agenda to reflect Democratic priorities is exactly what California Republicans fear most. "Hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned," says California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.

Despite the failure to pass a single initiative in last month's special election, Republicans express confidence that Schwarzenegger can reconnect with voters.

"There's no reason he can't regain the support of the political center, because he's the same centrist who ran for governor two years ago," says Mr. Schnur. "The problem he ran into this year was that he emphasized the most conservative aspects of his agenda. The lesson Schwarzenegger learned is that he has to present himself in ideological balance."

But Tom McClintock, a Republican state senator, who ran against the governor in the 2003 recall election, warns Schwarzenegger against straying too far from conservative principles. "If he were to stray toward those policies that produced the recall in the first place, it would be unwise for both himself, our party, and our state," he says.

"Arnold needs to stay with us," says Mr. Jeffries. "And we need to stay with him."

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