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Rehabbing Arnold

The latest from the slumping Team Arnold: The Governator may or may not take a swing at that special election he’s been warming up for. Cleanup political consultant Dick Morris may be nibbling on Arnold’s ear but not on Maria’s. And the team managers, “whoever they are,” are now claiming they are back on their game, whatever it is.

Meanwhile, top Democrats survey the diminished Schwarzworld with a sort of bemused awe. “They must be too brilliant for us to discern, making enemies of the most popular public employees, doing the same old celebrity-style events,” top strategist Gale Kaufman says wryly.

Democrats should be confident about their prospects — except for one thing. If Arnold Schwarzenegger feels he needs to get out of the distracting special-election business and move back to the bipartisan center, which, according to sources, he has said privately on occasion, he has a plan.

“Internally,” says an insider, “the conventional wisdom is to play it out (the run-up to a special election, which Schwarzenegger says he must call by mid-June), that the paycheck-protection initiative is the thing that can force deals on Arnold’s initiatives.”

Arnold’s plan is to play chicken with Democrats, using the paycheck-protection initiative — the only one that especially worries them — which would make it harder for public-employee unions to spend money on politics by requiring members to okay use of their dues for campaigns. Arnold wants deals on lengthening the time it takes for teachers to gain tenure by a few years, granting “combat pay” (a substitute for Schwarzenegger’s orphaned merit-pay proposal) to teachers in socioeconomically challenged areas, and assigning reapportionment to an independent commission rather than the Legislature.

“Will there be a special election?” asks the author and ballot proponent of the Arnold-backed reapportionment initiative, conservative organizer Ted Costa. “That’s up to the Big Guy. He’s said a lot of things, you know, he can have a credibility problem.

“We won’t be denied,” says Costa of the drive for a mid-decade redistricting. “The time has come, it’s like women’s suffrage.” Costa says there is mostly “superficial lip-service support” from Republican politicians other than Schwarzenegger. Once the initiative qualifies, Costa says, he’s planning a walk from the Oregon border to the Mexican border to keep the pressure on.

Before Schwarzenegger lost over a third of his popularity, Democrats were deeply concerned about the initiative. Last December, Santa Monica media consultant Bill Zimmerman was engaged to beat it with a competing measure. Four different versions were devised.

“Arnold’s proposal was weaker than we expected in polling and focus groups,” says Zimmerman. “The only thing that was holding it up was his popularity — this was back in January — and his persona as a reformer.”

Democrats decided it was easier simply to oppose the initiative. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez offered a compromise — waiting till after the 2010 Census with a different commission makeup — but that may no longer be on the table given Schwarzenegger’s diminished popularity and persona.

However, the prospect of having to defeat the paycheck-protection initiative in a low-turnout November special election, along with the Schwarzenegger spending-cap, teacher-tenure and reapportionment initiatives, may bring Democrats back to the table.

Even if Schwarzenegger succeeds in using the anti-union measure as a lever to extract some compromise legislative victories out of likely electoral defeats on his initiatives, he still faces a major challenge, one engaged by his concerned wife, Maria Shriver. How to rehabilitate his tarnished public image?

The controversial Republican who helped revive Bill Clinton’s presidency, Dick Morris, says that contrary to my report last week, Shriver hasn’t consulted him. “I have not talked to her,” he says. “I don’t work for Schwarzenegger.”

Morris does acknowledge talking to the governor himself, who he says called him about his March 17 New York Post column, “The Arnold Revolution.” In this column, picked up by Arnold’s Web site, Morris advises through selective praise, a timeworn columnist’s ploy. He lauds the “full dimensions” of Schwarzenegger’s “astounding” agenda. Morris talks up Schwarzenegger’s proposals on alternative energy, reapportionment and education reform. Notable by Morris’ omission were the pension and budget initiatives most prized by conservatives.

It was a call for the return of the centrist Arnold favored by Shriver, much like another Morris column, featured on the Arnold Web site after the recall, in which he presented Arnold’s centrist course as a path to victory for all Republicans, emphasizing environmental concerns and appeal to Latinos. So much for that.

“His image has been mangled badly,” says Paul Maslin, pollster for gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides and former Governor Davis. “But like any incumbent, he’ll fare better against an opponent.”

First he has to survive his current mess.