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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Few Actors Succeed on Political Stage

Capitol: Schwarzenegger will face a host of obstacles if he runs for governor. The last entertainer to win statewide office in California was Reagan.

March 09, 2001|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

From Charlton Heston to Clint Eastwood and, now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, celebrities and their attendant buzz are staples of California politics.

But Ronald Reagan is the last Hollywood personality to make the leap from screen stardom to statewide office, and his achievement 35 years ago remains instructive and cautionary.

Success in one venue has rarely been transferable to another, particularly in a state where, Reagan excepted, preferences for governor have run more to the drab likes of George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis.

Moreover, seeking political office in real life is vastly different from, and far less glamorous than, the cinematic version.

"There is often an unrealistic expectation that party leaders and community leaders will gather and . . . anoint" a preferred candidate, said GOP strategist Sal Russo, who suggested that sort of tidy arrangement is part of "a bygone era that only exists today in the movies."

As Schwarzenegger weighs a potential run for governor, many are already questioning his appetite for campaign combat, given the angry reaction to tawdry headlines that began circulating soon after his name surfaced as a potential candidate.

An attorney for Schwarzenegger sent a warning letter to Garry South, chief strategist for Davis, after South began faxing copies of a particularly unflattering article about Schwarzenegger in Premiere magazine--a standard practice by operatives in both political parties.

"What we've seen is pretty mild compared to what he's going to see later on in terms of TV ads up and down the state," said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor. "Going through that humiliation is almost a requirement of running for office these days. If you don't have the stomach for it, you have no business running."

For those reasons, few celebrities actually submit themselves to voters. Heston and fellow actor James Garner are among the names that have floated in California political circles over the years. Those who have succeeded post-Reagan, most notably ex-Carmel Mayor Eastwood and the late Sonny Bono, tend to win local offices. Bono won his House seat in Palm Springs only after four years as mayor and a failed statewide bid for U.S. Senate.

Back in 1964, Californians elected George Murphy, a song and dance man, to a single term in the Senate.

But the job of governor--chief executive of a state with the world's sixth-largest economy--is seen by most voters as a unique challenge.

"They want someone with experience for what they know is a tough political job," said Don Sipple, a GOP ad man who twice helped elect Wilson governor.

"Taking someone with celebrity status in one field and trying to shoehorn them into another is a very, very tough job," he said. "It doesn't automatically equate. There has to be a transformation and a transition as far as the celebrity's motives and preparation" are concerned.

Reagan spent years on the political circuit before running for governor, espousing conservative views that helped spawn a national movement that ultimately carried him to the White House.

That activism is far different from the role of white knight some desperate California Republicans envision for Schwarzenegger, a political newcomer whose appeal seems based more on novelty and personality than any clear philosophy.

In fact, his moderate stance on gun control and abortion rights clashes with the conservative leanings of most core Republicans--the ones he needs to win a GOP primary and make it to a general election, where his positions would be more mainstream.

"It's easy to forget 35 years later that Ronald Reagan didn't just appear out of the ether," said GOP strategist Dan Schnur. "The biggest mistake Republicans can make is to simply sit around and wait to be saved by Arnold Schwarzenegger or anyone else."

The actor has long been active in Republican politics, most notably as a celebrity endorser, and has often expressed interest in seeking political office in his own right. Those who have discussed a timetable with Schwarzenegger believe that he was aiming for a gubernatorial run in 2006 but started looking seriously at a challenge to Democrat Davis when the energy crisis emerged, possibly making the governor vulnerable.

Should he run, Schwarzenegger's celebrity status would ensure endless attention and his vast wealth would guarantee no shortage of campaign cash. But his early moves--a coy phone call to a Times columnist, a publicist's contradictory statements about his intentions--have left political professionals unimpressed.

Movie stardom, they say, is no shortcut past the drudgery of going out and selling himself one on one to small groups of voters. "The question to Arnold Schwarzenegger is: 'Who, other than yourself, wants to see you run?' " said Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran GOP analyst unaffiliated with any campaign.

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