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Arnold’s Abyss

Too bad there’s never an egg timer around when you need one. Arnold Schwarzenegger cooked his political future some more this week, recklessly endorsing the anti-illegal-immigrant Minuteman Project vigilantes and helplessly watching as a public poll showed him losing a third of his popularity in three months. Maria Shriver was on the warpath about her husband’s downward spiral, urging wholesale firings at the top of Team Arnold and consulting such unlikely counselors about saving her husband’s career as Dick Morris, the Republican who engineered Bill Clinton’s revival before becoming Fox’s favorite Clinton hater.

The wily Morris made his national reputation advising Clinton to find his way back to the "creative center" of American politics before Morris’ resentment of Hillary Clinton’s primus inter pares role (note to Maria) destroyed his relationship with Bill Clinton. Unsurprisingly, Morris thinks that Schwarzenegger needs to re-seize the center he formerly held in this mostly blue state before he got off on his image-shredding tangent.

"I never thought anyone would compare this governor to Jesse Ventura," says a chastened Arnold friend.

While he postures for a special election around his shrinking Year of Reform agenda, insiders say Schwarzenegger has said privately he never really wanted one, but merely hoped to force Democrats to engage his issues. Instead, his careening operation has emboldened Democrats. His own private polling shows his centerpiece budget initiative in deep trouble even as his business allies at Citizens To Save California struggle to qualify it for the ballot. And top Schwarzenegger strategist Mike Murphy is reportedly saying, "I’m not in control and haven’t been for some time."

Schwarzenegger, according to an insider, asked to go on KFI’s John & Ken Show just a few hours before it aired on April 28. His purpose? To get a quick boost in the L.A. area — where his private polling has him dropping the furthest — by criticizing the "Los Angeles, Mexico" freeway billboard promoting Channel 62’s Spanish-language newscast. Cheap news-flow politics, perhaps, but not unusual.

Schwarzenegger aides say he was merely responding to questions about the Minutemen, but — having received an e-mail tip from an insider, who described the KFI appearance as "potentially suicidal" — I heard the governor bring up the Minutemen favorably himself before being asked about them.

So was the Minuteman move planned? Insiders have two versions: "Spontaneous Arnold" or a decision reached after a brainstorming session with his staff. Fingers point to Communications Director Rob Stutzman. When former Governor Pete Wilson got freshly minted candidate Arnold in hot water a few days after his 2003 announcement to run by revealing that he had voted for Proposition 187 — which eliminated education and services for illegals before being thrown out by the courts — the veteran conservative Stutzman ventured forth to say that Schwarzenegger might well push another Prop. 187. Unbenownst to Stutzman, Schwarzenegger had already publicly reversed his position on Prop. 187.

Stutzman did not respond to questions about the Minuteman move, or about his plans. He is expected to leave the Governor’s Office and move to an Arnold political committee.

The Minuteman flap totally obscured a smart move, the naming of former Clinton appointee Alan Bersin as education secretary. Bersin replaced former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, who I reported last month would be leaving. Back then, the Governor’s Office had dismissed it as a "rumor," but within a few days Riordan was out, with the new story being that he had "secretly resigned" a month earlier.

Meanwhile, Citizens To Save California is struggling to qualify the troubled spending-control initiative. At the beginning of last week, it was broke, needing a loan from Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team to keep going. Signature gathering is behind schedule, but may barely make it, though Schwarzenegger should hope it doesn’t. The initiative starts out with only 43 percent support in public polling. Unlike last year, when he had the Democratic all-stars helping with his initially fiscal initiatives, all those folks will be campaigning against him this time.

Worse still, Schwarzenegger’s own polling shows only 29 percent support when those surveyed are read the ballot title and summary.

The merit-pay-for-teachers initiative won’t make it; teacher tenure will, but it’s too minor an issue to warrant a special election. As I predicted, Schwarzenegger has announced that he will accept a reapportionment reform after the 2010 Census. That deal, however, is not currently on the table. Now Democrats think they can just beat him.

Democrats are worried about the so-called paycheck-protection initiative (requiring public employees to sign off on dues used for politics), which has enough signatures. Contrary to the official line, there is coordination between Arnold’s official representatives and sponsor Lew Uhler. The governor hasn’t committed to it, but it may be the only big thing on his side that can pass. It would do little for Schwarzenegger’s central problem, his slumping popularity. Unlike the budget and education, it is an inside-baseball "reform" aimed at the core of the Democratic Party.

Arnold better find a way to turn down the heat — if, in fact, he really wants to stay in the kitchen after 2006.