HAWTHORNE, Calif. - If the polls are right, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to score the biggest victory of his young administration in Tuesday's California primary.
His name isn't on the ballot, but his reputation is. The Republican is campaigning hard for passage of a $15 billion bond measure described as the largest ever to appear on any ballot in any state.
Schwarzenegger is using a potent combination of star power and scare tactics to persuade California voters to approve the measure, Proposition 57, and a companion, Proposition 58.
In TV commercials, the governor pushes the measures as the solution to the state's budget mess. If they fail, he has warned, it would mean "Armageddon cuts" for the state, which could run out of money by summer.
Recent opinion surveys indicate that the strategy is working. Since his $10 million TV ad drive hit the airwaves, opinion has swung sharply in favor of the initiatives. Almost a quarter of voters said Schwarzenegger's backing has made them more likely to vote yes, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
"Super Comeback Tuesday" is how the governor describes next week's vote. He plans to barnstorm the state tomorrow in a bus caravan like the one he led in the final days before last fall's recall election.
"Those ballot measures have turned into a referendum on Arnold Schwarzenegger's first 100 days," says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist with ties to the governor's team. "Most normal people don't spend a lot of time thinking about subjects like deficit reduction. But if they like Schwarzenegger, they're going to vote for it."
If the measures are approved, Schwarzenegger's honeymoon with California voters will likely continue. By better than three-to-one, the public thinks he's doing a good job, according to the Times poll, released yesterday.
Schwarzenegger's upbeat image, and the way he has quieted the partisan bickering in the state capital, have raised voter confidence in state government, the Times poll found.
"I'm having a terrific time," Schwarzenegger said this week in a Meet the Press interview, crediting his acting and sports background for his initial success as a politician. "It's all about communicating and connecting."
Already, he's being likened to some of the greatest communicators in government, including Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and, of course, Ronald Reagan.
While those comparisons might be premature - until recently, he was being compared to former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura - there's little question that he has outperformed the expectations of many during his first months in office.
Schwarzenegger is now the state's most popular politician, according to the poll. Approval for the way he's doing his job runs across the board, with a majority of Democrats and 50 percent of self-described liberals joining the overwhelming majority of Republicans and conservatives giving him a positive job rating.
His "outsider" appeal is also undimmed. Most Californians believe he does what's right, rather than what's politically popular, according to a recent poll by the independent Field organization.
How long he can continue riding high will depend on the outcome of the state's budget crisis, which won't be solved even if the ballot initiatives are approved. The state will still have to close a budget shortfall of about $15 billion this year.
In addition, Schwarzenegger's direct-democracy approach to governing - using ballot initiatives to go over the heads of the state's elected representatives and take his agenda directly to the voters - is likely to draw increased criticism.
"I think that's a very dangerous trend," said former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, a Democrat who advised Schwarzenegger at the start of his term.
John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said Schwarzenegger is unlikely to abandon the option, which gives him leverage with the Democratic-controlled legislature, most of whose members have safe seats and are free to defy him.
Tuesday's vote isn't just about passing the budget measures; "it's about Schwarzenegger's clout," he said. "If he can win voter approval of these measures, the legislators will know that he has a pretty good chance of succeeding on others," such as worker's comp reform and limiting lawsuits against business. "For Schwarzenegger, the ballot process is the paddle on the classroom wall."
It was a broom, and a vow to "clean house," that Schwarzenegger brandished when he came to power on a wave of voter anger over budget gridlock.
His early success in changing the tone in Sacramento has been key to his rising popularity. He has charmed state politicians, in contrast to his aloof predecessor, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, only the second U.S. governor to be kicked out of office in a recall.
"He's been very open and thoughtful and smart about dealing with Democrats," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant in Sacramento. "It sounds silly, but the fact that he goes to their offices, that he shows up at their events, that he isn't imperious, has made a big difference. He's pretty shrewd, and it's not all 'aw-shucks'-ing. He knows what he's doing."
Democratic cooperation has allowed the governor to boast in ads for the "bipartisan budget plan" that the two parties are working together "for the first time in a long time." With polls showing that Democrats, and especially women, are among the weakest supporters of the measures, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular Democrat, is appearing in TV ads endorsing them.
One of the few holdouts is the state treasurer, Phil Angelides, a Democrat and potential challenger to Schwarzenegger in the '06 election. As an alternative to the $15 billion bond issue, he has proposed a combination of higher taxes on wealthy Californians and short-term borrowing.
Also sharply critical is state Sen. Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican who lost in the recall and faults Schwarzenegger for "completely failing" to cut state spending. He points out that Republicans "screamed bloody murder" when Davis proposed borrowing $13 billion last year. "I don't understand why it is suddenly good policy to spend $15 billion to paper over the same deficit," McClintock said.
Opponents lack the money to air TV ads, the only effective means of communication with voters in this sprawling state of 35 million. As a result, most Californians will never hear the arguments against Schwarzenegger's plan.
Also muted, at least for now, is criticism of Schwarzenegger's prodigious fund-raising prowess, which has given an unexpected twist to his boast to be "The Collectinator" (a reference to his efforts, thus far largely unsuccessful, to get more federal aid for his state).
Schwarzenegger, who turned Davis out of office, in part, by criticizing him for raising money from "special interest contributors," is now setting new records by collecting political contributions at a $140,000-a-day clip since taking office, including from donors with potential dealings with the state. Much of that money is going into the ballot initiative drive.
"Not to have learned a lesson from his predecessor is amazing to me," said Garry South, a Davis strategist. "Arnold may think that because he is larger than life that he might be able to get away with it.
"Or that he is not going to be held to the same standards that a typical politician is, and that this is going to be an asset that he's going to have in perpetuity. I think he's kidding himself."