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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love for dealmaking in the Capitol has sometimes trumped the content of the actual deal itself, according to critics.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love for dealmaking in the Capitol has sometimes trumped the content of the actual deal itself, according to critics. (Sacramento Bee Photo / John Decker)

Schwarzenegger a lure for moderate voters

California governor targets moderates

SACRAMENTO -- Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican of the big tent variety. Also of the cigar tent variety.

Shortly after becoming California governor, the actor had a large, beige, canvas room installed on an outdoor patio in the East Wing of the state Capitol. In the tent, fitted out with rattan furniture and surrounded by fake grass, the former action-movie star puffs away on his beloved cigars while he makes the deals for which he has come to be known in his nine months in office.

He does things his own way, this governor. And that way has been mostly bipartisan: Schwarzenegger has made friends and foes in both parties in California. His approval ratings among voters of all affiliations have lately hit the heights of those of his hero, Ronald Reagan.

A Republican who has voiced strong support for abortion rights and gay rights, he has come to such socially moderate positions more from a live-and-let-live perspective than from moral and ideological convictions. In short, he has been difficult to pin down.

"Arnold is Arnold," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the powerful, brusque San Francisco Democrat and old-fashioned liberal who has become one of Schwarzenegger's allies. "He's not the GOP. But he is California."

Nonetheless, the GOP is looking to Schwarzenegger to help establish its own big tent bona fides this week.

The governor will give a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention tonight, in a move that organizers hope will draw a large television audience to the suspense-free party confab and convince moderate, undecided voters that the GOP has room for them, too.

The California governor is but one of a series of prime-time speakers who share his moderate Republicanism, if not his wattage: US Senator John McCain of Arizona, Governor George E. Pataki of New York, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and current Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have also been given prominent speaking roles at this year's convention.

"The Republican Party is going to see if they can put as many moderates onstage in New York as the Democrats put soldiers onstage in Boston," said GOP consultant Dan Schnur, who was a consultant to McCain when he ran against Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Though Schwarzenegger needs little from the national party -- as governors go, his profile could hardly be higher, and the Constitution prevents the Austrian-born bodybuilder from seeking the White House -- the convention speech will lend him a political legitimacy he might not have outside California.

"In the rest of the country, he is still very much a cartoon character," Schnur said. "The convention gives him the opportunity to talk about his own accomplishments . . . to prove to the rest of the country that he is really governing."

Schwarzenegger's speech tonight is expected to be heavy on his own immigrant-to-riches-via-superstardom story, and thick with praise for the president, said one of his advisers.

The governor has declined all requests for interviews leading up to the convention. That may be partly because Schwarzenegger can so easily upstage ordinary politicians, and partly because his staffers hardly know what the governor will say next: He recently called legislators who had been holding up the state budget "girlie men."

Not that such apparent gaffes have had much impact on Schwarzenegger. He is held to a looser standard from other politicians, though he sometimes behaves like those he criticized when running for governor. He has, for instance, taken money from special interests with business to gain from the state, even though he had vowed not to.

His "girlie men" comment, a riff on an old "Saturday Night Live" routine, got national attention, but barely dented his popularity, especially since the Log Cabin Republicans, the largest organization for gay activism in the party, sprang forward to defend him against charges of homophobia.

On the campaign trail, accusations that he had groped and humiliated women over the years did not significantly turn voters off either, even though Schwarzenegger admitted to some of the incidents.

In office, he is known for repealing a big increase in vehicle license fees that incensed voters who recalled Schwarzenegger's Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis. He has opposed granting driver's licenses to undocumented workers and has balanced the budget without raising taxes, though analysts have called the state's fiscal situation papered-over.

His love for closing deals in the Capitol has sometimes trumped the content of the actual deal itself, said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

But legislators on both sides say he is better able to work Sacramento than any governor in years. And his constituents are more than happy to give Schwarzenegger the benefit of the doubt.

"I like him," said artist Evelyn Niehaus, who was taking pictures in downtown Sacramento on a recent warm afternoon. "I think he's doing a good job. He took on a big chunk when he tried to pull us out of our troubles. It's a lot for one person to do."

Niehaus, 50, voted for Schwarzenegger in the recall election in 2003. She said she was sure there were some issues where he was "struggling," but that she could not think of any.

"I'm really taken by Governor Schwarzenegger," she said.

"In his movies, he's always come off as a not-very-bright person, but everybody always said he's very intelligent. I think it was very nice of him to step up and say, 'I'd like to help.' "

Though the California governor will probably draw more viewers than would normally watch a political convention, few convention speeches have had an effect on perceptions of the parties, said Carrick.

A notable exception was conservative Patrick Buchanan's 1992 culture wars speech at the Republican National Convention, which cast the election as a religious war and blunted the appeal of incumbent President George H.W. Bush with conservative voters.

Niehaus, who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but is still undecided this year, said Schwarzenegger's speech would have little impact on her decision.

And it certainly will not budge Darryl Clark, a Vietnam veteran and retired US Department of Energy worker who was waiting in his wheelchair to be called for jury duty in a Sacramento park recently. Clark, 63, is a registered Republican, but a moderate one, he said -- a "McCain Republican."

He is just the kind of voter the GOP hopes to attract with its prime-time convention speakers this year. While he conceded that the former actor, for whom he did not vote, has "impressed me a little bit" since he took office, his sway would not be enough to bring Clark back to the party with which the veteran has become so disillusioned of late.

The president did not get his vote in 2000, and he would certainly not be getting it now, Clark said.

"I get very frustrated with some of the hard-right issues the Republican Party comes up with," Clark said.

"As far as Schwarzenegger speaking at the convention, I've got no problems with that at all. I have a problem with George W. Bush being reelected president," he said. "I don't think Schwarzenegger is going to affect [my vote] one way or another."

Some social conservatives are also unhappy with the selection of Schwarzenegger and others as speakers.

"The convention is largely a made-for-TV political event, and practically, we can understand the party is trying to appeal to liberals," said James Lafferty, spokesman for the Traditional Values Coalition.

"But we think that the party ought to be satisfied that it is a conservative party," he added. "Any time they attempt these sorts of things, it confuses the base, and it just doesn't work. It's a bad political strategy, if nothing else."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Age 57

Born 1947 in Austria.

Military service 1965 Joined Austrian Army.

1968 Arrived in United States.

1972 Won first professional Mr. Universe title. Ultimately won 13 bodybuilding titles.

1977 Starred in feature-length documentary ''Pumping Iron."

1979 Graduated from University of Wisconsin-Superior with a major in international marketing of fitness and business administration.

1982 Breakthrough film role in ''Conan the Barbarian."

1983 Became a US citizen.

1984 Starred in ''The Terminator."

1990 Appointed by President George H.W. Bush as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, serving until 1993.

2003 Became the 38th governor of California.

Personal Married, four children.

Sources: Cinema.com, German.about.com

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