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Arnold’s Faltering

The once soaring action governor keeps running into trouble. Although he is unveiling some progressive environmental positions this week, he remains mired in a swamp of his own creation, his ultrahyped but misfiring “Year of Reform.” Back from another out-of-state fund-raising swing, Arnold Schwarzenegger finds his California contributions, according to several inside sources, running behind internal projections. Much of the corporate community is not very enthused about his agenda for a special election; the governor says he’ll announce June 13 whether he will proceed with the special ballot on redistricting and budget-fixing measures. Says one business lobbyist: “His initiatives don’t do enough for us to go to war with the unions.” Despite the welcome news of several billion dollars in unanticipated state revenue, Schwarzenegger is down across the board in new public-opinion polling on most major issues. Some of his numbers are below those of Gray Davis’ final days. Schwarzeneggger’s job approval, according to the respected Public Policy Institute of California poll, is still stuck at 40 percent — which is 40 percent off his record-setting high of late last year. His main initiatives start off well short of a majority, almost always a sign of impending defeat. Even his strategy of using the so-called paycheck-protection initiative — which would make it harder for public-employee unions to spend money on politics — as a lever to force Democrats to compromise on his special-election initiatives isn’t working so far, despite the threats of his political consultant Mike Murphy. Why not? Because many Democrats think they can flat out beat him. “We don’t trust him,” says strategist Gale Kaufman, quarterback for a coalition of unions and the Assembly Democrats. “He makes deals and breaks them. We will beat the main initiatives he has left, and we’ll beat the anti-union initiative if he comes out from behind the curtain and publicly backs it. He’s picked the wrong fights with the wrong people.” This defiance is explained by the Public Policy Institute of California poll, which shows more than 60 percent against a special election and likely defeats for Schwarzenegger’s two main remaining initiatives, spending controls and redistricting. His support on the budget, transportation and education is lower than his shrunken overall support, indicating that his celebrity and residual reformer persona from the recall are propping up his job approval. In a move reminiscent of Bill Simon’s late campaign, Schwarzenegger’s consultants quickly conducted their own private poll on the eve of the release of the PPIC poll, and, yes, their efforts purport to yield very different results. Results that were in fact so different — such as 71 percent support for the redistricting initiative that drew 41 percent in the public poll — as to defy credulity. A loaded question, asking if the respondent supports “fair, honest, and competitive districts,” leads to inflated results on the redistricting initiative. Similarly, neglecting to mention the spending-controls initiative’s impact on the Proposition 98 education-funding requirement leads to a 55 percent support level, much higher than that in public polls, in which support ominously starts out in the low 40s. Schwarzenegger’s own unreleased polling shows this initiative to be in big trouble. These bad numbers for the once highly popular governor explain his big TV ad buy over the past month. Arnold’s camp wouldn’t say how much has been spent on a new TV spot blaming the Legislature for overspending (the governor has tremendous veto powers over the budget), but Democratic sources tracking the ad buys say Schwarzenegger spent $4.5 million to $5 million from his political action committee, California Recovery Team, between May 2 and Memorial Day. That is a large buy, but it is not a saturation buy. It seems bigger to many observers than it actually is because much of it is centered in and around news programs. As if all this weren’t enough, Schwarzenegger finds himself sharply engaged from the home front of Hollywood with Warren Beatty, after the Oscar winner’s second anti-Arnold speech of the spring, this one a blistering, widely reported UC Berkeley commencement address late last month. Later, in between kibitzing with his kids about their favorite Star Wars characters and posing with supporters, Beatty talked with me about what the European press calls a “stars war.” “I have to speak out,” he said. “You remember it was building last year as I watched the bullying behavior and the fake bipartisanship, now this special election to distract from the budget crisis.” Will he run for governor? Beatty, who is rather shy for a movie star and helped quell anti-Arnold Hollywood moves in the recall, isn’t sure. But he will be out campaigning, yet another sign of Schwarzenegger’s problems as he tries to pump up his sagging popularity and float his “Year of Reform.”