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Mr. California 

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
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Arnold Schwarzenegger, showing only a hint of movie-star swagger, headed toward the podium at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He had traveled up and down the state to talk to the poor and the powerful about Proposition 49, the after-school programs initiative voters overwhelmingly approved this month. The average skeptic would not have expected his level of polish and sophistication, given his bodybuilding and action-movie background.

”You have had some great people speak to you here,“ he said. ”Presidents, prime ministers, senators, business tycoons, humanitarian leaders. I was a little nervous about this. Then I thought, ’But how many have been Mr. Universe? Or been Danny DeVito‘s twin? Or acted with Sharon Stone?’“

The audience at Commonwealth loved this, just as they had at formal addresses around the state before famous forums, including the Orange County Forum in Irvine and Town Hall in Los Angeles. From then on, Schwarzenegger had most, if not all, eating out of his palm. Among those in attendance at Town Hall L.A. were two major Democratic fund-raising mavens, legendary left-liberal financier Stanley Sheinbaum and the more mainstream investor Steve Moses, an early backer of Al Gore. Both said they were quite impressed by Schwarzenegger, though not exactly endorsing any future campaign of the man most expect to seek the Governor‘s Office in 2006.

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The most famous immigrant in America overcame a thick Austrian accent and transcended the unlikely background of bodybuilding to become the biggest movie star in the world in the 1990s. In the process, he established a varied business empire and married into the Kennedy family. Wife Maria Shriver is a prominent TV journalist. Mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John and Robert Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics. Father-in-law Sargent Shriver founded the Peace Corps and Job Corps. Uncle Ted is the senior senator from Massachusetts.

If he runs, as appears likely, S will be the first movie superstar to seek high public office in America. Ronald Reagan was a star, but never a box-office idol. Recently, only Warren Beatty has come relatively close to running, when he seriously explored a race for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.

And Schwarzenegger isn’t just a big star, he is a global movie icon, his trademark persona shining through in every role. He doesn‘t have a movie franchise like James Bond; Schwarzenegger is a movie franchise. Though his supernova as an action hero has cooled at 55, he is one of the highest-paid actors in the world, with a $30 million fee for the forthcoming Terminator 3. Some are troubled by the violence implicit in S’s screen persona, especially in megahits such as the Terminator films, Total Recall, True Lies, Predator and Conan the Barbarian. But Schwarzenegger began adjusting his screen image as a relentless killing machine in the late ‘80s, when he began doing comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop, in which he showed a surprisingly deft touch.

A run for the Governor’s Office is never far from his mind. Early on, I broke the ice with S by reminding him of a story I wrote that revealed his poll asking voters whether he should run this year as a write-in candidate. ”You!“ he exclaimed. A brief vision of being cinematically tossed through a plate-glass window flashed through my mind, but of course he was kidding. How did he fare in his poll? ”Very well,“ said S. How well? Only the trademark crocodile grin in reply.

The topic of a 2002 run came up again at a private reception at the Fairmont Hotel with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the legendary former California Assembly speaker and longtime backer of Governor Davis. It was late October, and Bill Simon had just made another devastating gaffe, this time producing a photo he claimed showed Gray Davis illegally accepting a check in his Capitol office, prompting the governor to call on Simon to drop out of the race. ”I called Gray,“ said the former Assembly speaker, one of Davis‘ earliest backers for governor, ”and told him to stop telling Simon to drop out. Because if he did Arnold would be a write-in and he’d win.“ While noncommittal, Schwarzenegger averred as how the race for governor was ”boring“ and ”pitiful.“

Later, at a favored Willie Brown hangout, the venerable French restaurant Le Central, lunching with the mayor, his clothier crony Wilkes Bashford, and San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein (whose wife, Sharon Stone, co-starred with Schwarzenegger in Total Recall), Schwarzenegger‘s sometimes-edgy humor flashed. A male lobbyist friend of Brown’s came up to their table to show off his new jacket. (Brown is a longtime fashion aficionado.) ”Very nice,“ said Schwarzenegger. ”Does it come in a men‘s?“

So who is this guy who we know as a relentless, wisecracking action hero in the movies who is now the front-runner for governor of California? He grew up in a small town in Austria, watching newsreels and reading magazines.

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