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Schwarzenegger rolls out his economic recovery plan

LOS ANGELES - As a federal judge ruled against postponing the state's Oct. 7 recall vote, the transformation of Arnold Schwarzenegger from action star to political star began yesterday with his first major news conference and the introduction of his "economic recovery plan" for California.

In an arrival more befitting a movie premiere than an economic summit, the gubernatorial candidate passed through a gantlet of reporters behind red velvet ropes as he approached a hotel ballroom with his 20 or so financial advisers.

Wearing a gray business suit and flanked by billionaire financier Warren Buffett and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Schwarzenegger smiled and waved at the cameras before disappearing behind white double doors.

After a two-hour closed meeting, Schwarzenegger read from scripted remarks about what was discussed and, for the first time since making his surprise entry into the race two weeks ago, spent about 40 minutes fielding reporters' questions.

But his plan to balance the budget, halt an exodus of business from the state and extricate California from money-losing energy contracts - problems that sparked the recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis - was short on specifics.

Schwarzenegger said he probably would not raise taxes - though "you can never say never" - and that he would restore California's fiscal health by reducing spending. He offered no written plan and said he likely would be unable to detail the cuts until an independent audit of the state budget is conducted - after the election.

"The public doesn't care about figures. The people want to hear: Are you tough enough to go and make changes?" Schwarzenegger said at his news conference, sounding like the gutsy characters he played in his action films. "I will take action."

Recall on schedule

Schwarzenegger's remarks came about the same time that a federal judge denied a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to postpone the Oct. 7 recall vote. The ACLU of Southern California filed suit seeking to delay the vote until March 2, arguing that the error-prone punch-card balloting system used in six counties had the potential to disenfranchise thousands of voters. The punch cards are being replaced with modern systems.

In his 29-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said the ACLU failed to demonstrate that using the punch-card system is unconstitutional.

"Implicit in a recall election, and explicit in the time frame provided by the California Constitution, is a strong public interest in promptly determining whether a particular elected official should remain in office," Wilson wrote.

ACLU officials said yesterday they plan to appeal.

"We're enormously disappointed," said staff attorney Catherine Lhamon. "We were only talking about delaying the vote by a few months so that the fundamental rights of California voters could be safeguarded."

Though politics and entertainment mix well in California - Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono and other entertainers have held elective office - political observers are watching Schwarzenegger closely to see if he can garner credibility among voters.

'Change is needed'

Seemingly attempting to avoid the label of a Hollywood political lightweight, Schwarzenegger recruited some heavy hitters to his economic team: Buffett, Shultz and others representing the best and brightest in industry, academia and government.

Buffett and Shultz praised Schwarzenegger's intellect, leadership skills and ability to draw together Democrats and Republicans.

"A change is needed," said Buffett, a Democrat. "That's why I'm here with Arnold Schwarzenegger."

But Buffett drew criticism to Schwarzenegger when he suggested recently that California might be better off if it repealed Proposition 13, a popular 1978 ballot initiative that capped property tax increases.

Any suggestion of modifying Proposition 13 is considered political suicide, and Schwarzenegger quickly pledged his support for the law.

"I told Warren if he mentions Proposition 13 again, he'll have to do 500 sit-ups," Schwarzenegger said.

Still, Schwarzenegger flaunts his Hollywood background.

He made headlines when it was reported that he had enlisted actor Rob Lowe, who played a political adviser on NBC's The West Wing, to be a high-level real-life adviser. At the news conference, though, Schwarzenegger said that Lowe, another Democrat, would merely help raise cash from the entertainment world.

However, Schwarzenegger confirmed a report that he was using his agents at Creative Artists Agency to recruit supporters.

"They offered celebrities coming out to raise money for me," he said. "They will support me 100 percent."

Schwarzenegger addressed a major controversy that had dogged his candidacy with Hispanic voters - his support of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny illegal immigrants access to public services. He fanned the flames by appointing former Gov. Pete Wilson, who spearheaded the initiative, and several of Wilson's advisers to key positions in his campaign.

"I am pro-immigrant - I came to this country as an immigrant 35 years ago," Schwarzenegger said. "If elected I will have the Bush administration take over their share of the burden."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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