California dreaming

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Perhaps 200 invited guests sit in a four-tiered horseshoe arrangement with rapt attention as the man who wants to be the next governor of California, action-movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, stands in the center and tells them why.

It's like a made-for-the-movies melodrama -- the poor immigrant from Austria who came to these shores as an aspiring bodybuilder champion and wound up an immensely rich and popular star with a celebrity wife and a big house full of kids.


If he ever wrote a biography, he tells the assembled crowd, he could call it "Made in America," because all he is he owes to his adopted land.

People always ask him, he says, why he's running when "you make millions and can make millions more." The reason, he offers, is because "I wouldn't have it all without California," which he calls "the land of dreams." Therefore, he says, "it's natural that you want to give something back."


The question on critics' minds, though, is just what it is that a muscleman actor with no political experience has to offer the voters of California. In the recent debate, he showed only a superficial grasp of the state's problems.

The obvious initial answer is his celebrity, which turns out big crowds when he makes his rare appearances, encouraging Republican operatives to believe he can capture the governorship in the bizarre two-stage recall election now set finally for Oct. 7.

For openers, his chief selling point is that he is not Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the incumbent whose woes with an electricity crisis and runaway state deficit fueled a petition drive signed by 1.6 million Californians demanding his ouster. Voters must first vote to recall Mr. Davis before the second stage, choosing his successor on the same ballot, kicks in.

"Arnold," as everybody calls him, plays humble right off by acknowledging that running for governor is "a learning experience" for him. That's why, he says, he's holding a series of invitation-only town meetings around the state to hear what's on voters' minds.

As learning experiences go, however, the sessions hold limited potential because the invitees are mostly drawn from sympathetic groups and individuals who throw him softball questions. But so are similar town meetings Mr. Davis is conducting at which he owns up to having made mistakes, after which he harangues the Republicans for trying to usurp the power of the people with the recall.

Mr. Schwarzenegger calls his sessions "Ask Arnold," and the invitees dutifully do, inquiring about worker's compensation rates, which small business owners in the audience tell him are killing them. He tells them that the first thing he'll do as governor is cut the rates in half.

He says this and other laws hostile to small business are driving them out of California, and jobs with them. Employers in neighboring Nevada tell him, he says, "Gray Davis is a great recruiting office for us."

Another question right down his alley about local school needs enables him to say California localities ought to be able to keep more of the taxes they now must send to the state government to provide after-school education, one of his pet interests.


Asked whether he can unify his own Republican Party, in which state Sen. Tom McClintock's gubernatorial candidacy threatens to undermine his own, Mr. Schwarzenegger says he not only can do that, but as governor will be able to persuade the Democratic-controlled legislature to follow his leadership. But his strong focus on standard GOP pro-business actions seems unlikely to appeal to the Democrats in Sacramento.

Taking questions from reporters afterward on similar matters, Mr. Schwarzenegger is open and articulate. But when he is questioned about reported violations of immigration laws when he first came to America in 1968, he brushes them aside as irrelevant.

Essentially he asks the voters to buy into his American dream, to give his own a perfect ending and in so doing put California back on track again. Judging from the polls indicating a close vote on Mr. Davis and on his potential successor, Arnold may be playing his most difficult role yet.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.