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Theatrical Arnold

The fellow waving the “Arnold ’06” sign seemed familiar. And a little embarrassed. A conservative activist who works for a Republican politician, he had demonstrated against the actor in September 2003 when Schwarzenegger made his maiden voyage to a state Republican convention in Los Angeles as a surprise aspirant for the California governorship. Yet here he was not 17 months later at another state Republican convention — this one on the ground floor of the governator’s official Sacramento residence, the Capitol Park Hyatt Regency — cheering for a first-ever pre-primary endorsement of the man he’d denounced as a dangerous RINO (Republican in Name Only) during the recall. Why the switch? Much dialogue ensued. The bottom line? “We’re going to keep winning.” Are they? Arnold Schwarzenegger intends to ride an electoral whirlwind this year. But his vulnerability has increased — in part because of the unpopularity of his education policies and problems with his budget performance — and it is by no means clear that he can control these events. After a brief and uncharacteristic Friday-night foray pressing the flesh and saying little with delegates in his hotel lobby, Schwarzenegger was combative and messianic, surprising his staff by taunting Democrats in a largely extemporaneous performance. Just hours after appointing moderate former Santa Cruz Senator Bruce McPherson as secretary of state, the nice Arnold was replaced by the nasty Arnold. Invoking a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, the man whose marketing role model was the ever-inciting attention-addict Muhammad Ali repeatedly assured victory for his four-part agenda — limiting state budget spending, cutting public pension costs by privatizing pensions for new state workers, providing merit pay for teachers, and taking redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature — in a likely special election later this year. Now wearing a politician’s red tie, the governor gave his Republican banquet audience red meat. “Those poor little guys,” he said of Democratic leaders. “I am in the 60s [in polls of job approval], they are down there in the 30s. They’re trying very hard to tear me down. I have news for them. They may have a wonderful dream about that. But the reality is very sad for them. “My preference is to work with Democrats and Republicans. But the Legislature is sleeping over there. We’re going to go to the people,” Schwarzenegger said to roars from the crowd. Visibly excited by the response, he shouted with a nod of satisfaction: “We’re going to have great theatrics this year.” Now fully revved up, he vowed to take on the Legislature: “We’re going to the source. Right there where all the evil is.” Which was nothing if not theatrical. Striking a visionary tone, Schwarzenegger said: “I can see it. I see our victory.” Launching into a litany about himself, he recounted his history of visualizing great success and overcoming naysayers in successive careers as an athlete, movie star and politician. “I saw myself as governor,” he concluded. “They laughed. I made it happen.” “Hell of a speech,” commented one prominent member of an increasingly cynical state press corps. “He doesn’t mean a word of it.” Actually, he probably does. At least as he says it. While the governor stirred up the new faithful with a course that even some admirers describe as megalomaniacal — press and pols were buzzing about a George Will column in which Schwarzenegger is described as holding his palm toward his face as if grasping an object that only he can see, saying: “If I can see it, I can achieve it” — other realities were intruding. Behind the scenes of Team Arnold, there has been contentiousness about the wisdom of Schwarzenegger’s agenda. Knowing that Democrats are brewing up potentially attractive alternatives and mindful that, despite his hyperconfident rhetoric, the governor could actually lose one or more initiatives, his team is busily polling and focus-grouping the proposals trying to fine-tune them into a winning formula. And although his party is united behind him because he is a winner and they had grown tired of losing, some of its elements could upset the apple cart with initiatives that distract from or even diminish the Schwarzenegger initiatives on immigration, union dues and abortion, perhaps making it easier for opponents to cast the special election as a Republican power grab. Mindful that merit pay for teachers by itself is only a plank in an otherwise vague education-reform program and that, while it tests well as a question on a poll, it could end up being viewed as an attempt to scapegoat an admired profession, Team Arnold finally began adjusting the message with a short conceptual weekend radio address in which he talked also about charter schools, vocational education and putting more money into classrooms by contracting out ancillary services. Other parts of his agenda are also being opinion researched. One which is especially ripe for fixing is his spending-limits initiative, which would trigger across-the-board cuts in all programs if revenues don’t match expenditures. The proposal to cut increased spending on public-employee pensions by putting new hires into 401(k) plans looks strong in the polls. Most voters aren’t state workers, so the uncertainty involved with the Bush plan to privatize Social Security doesn’t apply to them with the Schwarzenegger proposal. The redistricting-reform plan, in which the Legislature would be replaced by a panel of judges, draws a bare plurality in polls and faces major opposition within the Republican Party. Some Republican members of Congress fear losing their safe seats if the bipartisan deal struck at the beginning of the decade is undone by Schwarzenegger. Although Democrats have publicly ignored the special-election agenda, the Weekly has learned they have actually been devising alternatives to portray his versions as counterproductive. And initiatives raising property taxes for businesses, increasing the minimum wage and providing a car buyers’ bill of rights could further complicate Schwarzenegger’s life. “Schwarzenegger’s yelling and special-election grandstanding doesn’t help the kids in the classrooms or anything else,” says Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland. “For that we need a governor, not a performer. But if he just wants to fight, he’s got one.”