LOS ANGELES -- Stepping into his new role as California governor-elect, Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly faced the central challenge of his fledgling administration yesterday, struggling to explain how he would fix the projected $8 billion budget shortfall that prematurely forced his predecessor out of office.
In his debut as an elected official, Schwarzenegger repeated two of his main fiscal pledges: not to raise taxes, and to repeal a hike in the state's car tax. Appearing exhilarated after an unexpectedly strong showing the night before, the actor-turned-politician told reporters he intends to "open up the books" as soon as he arrives in Sacramento to see what wasteful spending can be eliminated.
But Schwarzenegger, a Republican, offered no new details for balancing the state budget, one of the central issues in the turbulent recall campaign. Instead, he said he would appeal to the White House directly for federal aid, hopefully meeting with President Bush when he travels through California on his way to Asia next week.
"I will make sure that I can meet with President Bush as quickly as possible, because I have a whole bunch of business, California business, to talk to him about and take care of," Schwarzenegger said during a short news conference at the Century Plaza Hotel. "There's a lot of money we can get from the federal government."
Schwarzenegger cannot be sworn in as governor until the secretary of state certifies the ballots, which is expected to take place by the middle of next month. Once in office, he has until Jan. 10 to finalize a budget in keeping with the state constitution -- a task that plagued Governor Gray Davis, the Democrat who was recalled from office in the voting on Tuesday.
Still, analysts from both parties said the novice politician should benefit from the results, which showed a solid majority -- 56 percent -- wanted to oust Davis and preferred Schwarzenegger over his next-closest rival, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.
"The honeymoon won't be very long, but people want to give him some chance," political science professor Jack J. Pitney of Claremont McKenna College said. "And I think, given the unexpected magnitude of his victory, he has slightly more breathing room than I think most people expected. A very narrow victory would have led Democrats to question his legitimacy, but I think when the final vote is in, his vote total will be bigger than Gray Davis's was in 2002. So that pretty much squelches the `usurper' argument."
Bush, who had avoided getting involved in the controversial campaign, called Schwarzenegger yesterday to congratulate him on his victory, advisers said. Other national and international figures offered their congratulations as well; Schwarzenegger said he spent almost the entire morning on the phone with well-wishers, from South African leader Nelson Mandela to President George H. W. Bush to Senate majority leader Bill Frist.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose niece Maria Shriver is married to Schwarzenegger, issued a statement saying he had called the couple the night before. "I look forward very much to working with him on the many issues where we agree, especially in improving the quality of education and expanding opportunities for all our people," the Democrat said. "What better proof could there be that America really is a nation of immigrants? The Kennedy family has its own big tent policy."
Schwarzenegger, a former body-building icon who made millions in action films, promised to stop making movies while governor, instead devoting his full attention to managing the nation's largest state. "The people of California want me to be the governor and nothing else," he said. "There will be no time for movies or anything else."
Schwarzenegger, a native of Austria, has no previous experience in public life. Though the budget deficit is now projected at $8 billion, it is likely to grow. The state Legislature is controlled by Democrats, and his political opponents, while sounding conciliatory, are still bitter about the recall campaign that led to his victory.
And the actor-turned-politician knows all too well what can happen to governors who fall short of expectations, having watched predecessor Davis suffer the electorate's wrath just 11 months after being elected.
"He himself said that running for office was like opening a new movie or opening a new Planet Hollywood -- the easy part is over," said Leon Panetta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House. "The governing part is where you literally have to now sit down and figure out what represents good policy for this state, and how you put together the political coalitions you have to put together in order to get anything done."
Schwarzenegger made several concrete promises as a candidate, the most important of which was to repeal the three-fold hike in the state's automobile tax. The budget crunch is likely to make that a difficult task, however; the increased car tax is projected to yield as much as $6 billion a year in revenue for the state.
"Any proposal he makes is going to run into some opposition," Pitney of Claremont McKenna College said. "There is no solution that escapes pain or political controversy . . . obviously, the Democrats in the Legislature would be more inclined to a tax increase than a spending cut" -- an option that Schwarzenegger has ruled out and would be politically hard-pressed to break.
The actor, who on Tuesday night scolded supporters for booing Davis during his televised concession speech, said he had spoken with the leading Democrats in the state to begin the job of repairing the partisan breach. Perhaps most important, he talked to state Senate President John Burton, a larger-than-life Democratic figure expected to match Schwarzenegger in force and personality.
"I'm very optimistic about working together with the Democratic leaders in Sacramento," Schwarzenegger said, reading a list of officials to whom he had spoken.
But both Burton and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat who may run for governor in 2006, cast doubt on Schwarzenegger's claim that he can cancel the car tax increase and balance the budget without imposing new taxes. And other strategists said the goal of reaching a compromise with legislators -- a task even Davis could not accomplish with his fellow Democrats -- may be far more difficult than it appears.
"He's going to get there and pretty quickly need to figure out how he's quite literally going to keep the lights on, keep the schools open, provide health care -- and do it all in a situation where the economy shows no signs of getting better," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who had worked to defeat the Davis recall. And finding untapped resources in California's budget is more difficult than in most other states, thanks to its limited sources of funding.
"He faces challenges that would make Hercules' tasks look easy," Lehane said.