California's action-hero-turned-governor appears poised to run America's most-populous "blue" state for four more years.
The key reason: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recast himself as a centrist.
He's gone from "bickerer to bargainer," says the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest newspaper. This year he has joined Democratic lawmakers in supporting a wide range of issues, from lowering the cost of prescription drugs to increasing the minimum wage to curbing global warming.
"He worked well with the Democratic legislature, and they rewarded him with legislation that made him into a new person, a moderate," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
The result: His approval ratings have risen some 19 percent in the past year, a rare spike in a short time, analysts say. Now nearly 7 in 10 of likely voters say Mr. Schwarzenegger will be re-elected, according to a Sept. 27 poll by the independent California Field Poll.
Schwarzenegger now leads his Democratic opponent, state treasurer Phil Angelides, 50 percent to 33 percent among voters, according to a Los Angeles Times poll published Oct 1.
"He has done an interesting back flip to get on board with so many Democratic issues that he has won over nonpartisans and Democrats alike," says Mark DiCamillo, who directs the Field Poll.
He notes that Schwarzenegger has gained some measure of support among Hispanics, who see him as a guy who reaches out to Democrats.
It's a far cry from the days right after his election in 2003. Then, he sought to capitalize on his celebrity status. He became known for posing for "thumbs up" photo ops, insulting his opponents in the legislature with the term "girlie men," and having a private smoking tent in the courtyard at the Capitol in Sacramento.
But it came to a crushing halt last November, when voters rejected four of the initiatives he backed, which would have made it easier to fire teachers and restrict campaign contributions from union dues. In that campaign, he angered powerful interest groups in the state, including teachers' and nurses' unions.
Schwarzenegger has since sought to mend fences. In December, he hired a Democratic chief of staff. Until recently, he also was campaigning with state Democratic leaders – including Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – on a state bond initiative to borrow $37.3 billion for highways, schools, and levees. This year he also signed a law making California the first state to aim to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the state.
Schwarzenegger has been helped by the fact that Mr. Angelides, so far, has not been able to define himself in this campaign. Among voters, 20 percent say they have no opinion of Angelides at all, according to the California Field Poll.
In the election's only debate Oct. 7, Angelides performed well but did not sufficiently hurt Schwarzenegger's standing with voters, according to most analysts.
Angelides is seeking to put a chink in Schwarzenegger's armor by running TV ads that tie the governor to President Bush, who has been faring badly in polls.
But that strategy is not likely to succeed, analysts say.
"Schwarzenegger's tactics and fortunes are a real contrast to Bush's governing style and the partisanship of the national Congress," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "They have not found a way to defuse the poisonous partisanship the way Arnold has in California."
Some are frustrated about the governor's move toward the center of the political spectrum. But in a blue state where Democratic voter registration outnumbers Republican 43 percent to 35 percent, it's a shift that behooves Schwarzenegger.
"Arnold has really made it impossible for Angelides to move forward by doing a 180-degree pirouette of his own," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Schwarzenegger's conservative base is furious that he has moved to the center, he says, "but in a liberal state, they don't have any other choices.... After Arnold there is nothing for them."
Schwarzenegger is not the only one who wins by moving to the center. "The lesson for the national GOP is that the center holds and that the candidate and party that can get control of the center will be able to dominate even from the minority party," says Mr. Sabato.
Some prominent state Democrats could also benefit from a Schwarzenegger victory. Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Núñez may have their own designs on the governorship in 2010. If Schwarzenegger is reelected, the governor's seat would be open that year. If Angelides wins, they would have to face an incumbent Democrat in a primary.