Bush's shadow looms over governors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's governor says he's an "Arnold Republican," not a "Bush Republican." But in many ways, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush are in the same boat, with one exception: Schwarzenegger is running for re-election this year.

Largely as a result of his own mistakes, Schwarzenegger's political standing has fallen as low as the president's. His competence has been called into question, and while the governor isn't grappling with foreign policy failures, his agenda has stalled because of resistance from fellow Republicans, just as Bush's has.

"I've thought a lot about the last year and the mistakes I made and the lessons I've learned," Schwarzenegger said in a mea culpa speech that callers to his campaign headquarters hear when they're put on hold. "I have absorbed my defeat, and I have learned my lesson."

Whether Californians want to give him another chance is a question that will be answered this year in the nation's most populous state, where Schwarzenegger stands a good chance of winning, despite his difficulties.

The California contest is the marquee event of a busy election year, in which 36 states, including Maryland, are choosing governors. Republicans are defending 22 governorships. Democrats hold the office in 14 states with elections this fall.

The results could defy stereotypes. In the blue states of New England -- Democratic strongholds in presidential elections -- Republican governors are favored to gain re-election in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

In the red-state Great Plains, Southwest and Rocky Mountain West, which often go Republican in presidential years by lopsided margins, Democratic incumbents are expected to win new terms in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Overall, Democrats are favored to make gains nationally, which could give that party a majority of governors' chairs. More important than overall numbers, however, will be which party controls such key states as Ohio and Florida. Governors could be influential in the '08 presidential election and in the redistricting that follows the 2010 census.

"Do governors matter in presidential elections? Yes, because we're a very, very narrowly divided country, and so, in politics, inches matter," said Philip Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Conversely, the president may matter in '06 gubernatorial contests, though his name won't be on the ballot.

"This may be a year nationally that favors Democrats because of the attitudes of the public toward Bush and the war," said Mark DiCamillo, who directs the Field organization's nonpartisan polling in California.

Schwarzenegger, who campaigned for Bush's re-election in 2004, has distanced himself from the president, avoiding him on his most recent visits to the state. Bush never carried California, and he is deeply unpopular among the swing Democrats and independents that the governor hopes to win back.

The Democrats are trying to tie Schwarzenegger to Bush, and even some in the governor's inner circle wonder privately whether an unpopular war half a world away is a major factor in their state's sour mood.

"It just feeds an overall sense that things are going wrong and that our leaders don't have a clue about how to make them better," said Paul Maslin, a pollster for state Treasurer Phil Angelides, one of the Democrats running to unseat Schwarzenegger.

Californians dote on their image as trendsetters, but if the state's political climate is influenced by outside events this November, it wouldn't be the first time.

When midterm elections produce major upheavals around the country, "the wind blows east to west, and the mood in Washington affects the mood in California," said Bill Whalen of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Many of the issues likely to play out in California's campaign will be repeated in other states as well: the rising cost of higher education, illegal immigration, domestic security and energy independence. Another issue that has emerged elsewhere -- limiting government's power to seize private property -- might become a vehicle for Schwarzenegger to rally conservative support, some Republicans predict.

But with a celebrity governor seeking his first full term, the race here will primarily be a personality contest. As flexible as Bush is intransigent, the governor has undergone a political makeover after a disastrous 2005, when state voters rejected ballot initiatives that Schwarzenegger championed and his poll numbers plummeted. Unlike Bush, who has resisted calls to shake up his White House staff, Schwarzenegger overhauled his team for the re-election run -- by importing Bush aides and Republican operatives from Washington. They include Matthew Dowd, a top Bush re-election strategist, and campaign manager Steve Schmidt, formerly a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Schwarzenegger also hired an openly gay Democratic woman as his chief of staff, a move that angered Republican conservatives already estranged by the governor's liberal social views and his proposal to raise the state's minimum wage.

"There are some on the right wing that are not happy about that, that think I should only govern for Republicans, but that's not what I promised the people of California," Schwarzenegger said last month on NBC's Meet the Press.

Campaign aides acknowledge that the governor needs more support from Republican voters. But that could conflict with other, equally pressing re-election demands. He also must mend fences with Latinos, representing almost one-fifth of California's electorate, who are among many here who have been disillusioned by Schwarzenegger's failures.

Schwarzenegger was swept into office in the 2003 recall election on a promise to end business as usual in Sacramento, the capital. But he has been stalemated by everyone from Democrats and their labor union allies to fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who refused this month to go along with his plan to put an ambitious -- and politically popular -- $222 billion public works program on the June primary ballot.

Instead of hitting the campaign trail, the governor was hunkered down last week in the white tent he has put up in the courtyard outside his Capitol office, where he can evade the building's smoking ban. There, the governor and top legislative leaders began talking again about a deal to put the spending measure on the November ballot, a move that Schwarzenegger strategists regard as key to his comeback chances.

A year ago, 56 percent of Californians favored the governor's re-election, according to the Field poll. Now, just 37 percent do. And a clear majority in the same poll believes California is on the wrong track.

But Schwarzenegger, expected to spend more than $120 million in what will be the nation's most expensive governor's race to date, has history on his side: Every California governor who sought re-election over the past half-century has won. His advisers say he has bottomed out, and public polls already show him running virtually even with either of his likely Democratic opponents.

California's economy is growing and unemployment is low, two factors that normally help an incumbent unless voters are distracted by larger questions, such as a war. Schwarzenegger will also draw on his star power, which sets him apart from other politicians and gives the action hero a way to overcome his current difficulties.

A reminder of his enduring appeal could be seen last week in Los Angeles, when the governor made a surprise appearance before 1,000 high school students and their parents at a choral competition. The audience erupted with squeals of delight, and tiny flashes popped as cell phone cameras went off throughout the lavishly appointed, and normally sedate, Disney Concert Hall.

"I came here to pump you up," the governor told the crowd. Instead, "You pumped me up."

Schwarzenegger offered a motivational talk, the parable he never tires of retelling: his own immigrant-to-riches life story.

"Remember one thing: The harder you work, the farther you will go," he said. "Each of you is a winner. You can do whatever you want."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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