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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Ready for Next Actor-Governor? Check Out His Political Muscles

November 10, 2002|John J. Pitney Jr. | John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Chapman University shortly before the election to discuss his after-school initiative for MSNBC's "Hardball" talk show. Schwarzenegger told "Hardball" host Chris Matthews that the last time he visited Chapman --to pick up an honorary degree -- "I said when I left, 'I'll be back.' Right, well, I'm back."

He'll be back again. Though he had to cancel this month's appearance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, people in the area will see a good deal of him in the years ahead. And not just in the theaters.

On election night, Schwarzenegger was a bigger winner than Gray Davis. Not only did his ballot proposition triumph, but the GOP's poor showing left the party longing for a champion. In four years, Republicans may turn to him as their candidate for governor.

If they do, Orange County will be one of his major bases of support. Some local conservatives grumble about his support for abortion rights, but he is immune to their favorite epithet for Republican moderates. Nobody calls this man a "squish."

Schwarzenegger has qualities that the state party has been missing. The first is a reputation for "compassionate conservatism." He has long worked on children's causes, such as the Special Olympics and the Inner-City Games. The first President Bush named him to head the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, where he became a national spokesman for physical education. This record made him a credible sponsor of the initiative. Significantly, the proposition's Web address was www.joinarnold.com.

After-school programs are a popular idea, so the measure drew a rainbow coalition of endorsements. Orange County supporters included Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, state Sen. Dick Ackerman, and Sheriff Michael S. Carona, a potential candidate for lieutenant governor. It also had the backing of Democrats such as Irvine Mayor Larry Agran.

When Chris Matthews noted that some Democrats were withholding support, Schwarzenegger waved him off, saying, "Let's all get together and make this pass and do something for the children." That's an appealing message for voters who've seen enough sharp-edged ideologues.

His accent is another plus. The GOP's anti-immigration image has hurt it among naturalized citizens, a growing force in Orange County. Who could better mend this damage than a fellow immigrant? Like a Middle European version of Ronald Reagan, Schwarzenegger speaks movingly about what the American dream meant to a young man from a modest home in Austria.

Schwarzenegger brings Reaganesque excitement and Hollywood glamour to his public appearances.

That's a change from the recent run of state Republican leaders. Can you picture a George Deukmejian action figure? A Bill Simon video game? On second thought, the latter is a possibility. Players would compete to make the most mistakes.

Celebrity has drawbacks. In a run for office, Schwarzenegger would have to answer for the high body count in his movies. By the way, Santa Ana's MainPlace mall was the filming site for the opening of "Kindergarten Cop." (With only one killing, the MainPlace sequence was relatively tame.)

Celebrity also brings out the tabloids. When newspapers reported that Schwarzenegger might run in 2002, Democratic strategist Garry South provided the press with a magazine article making salacious personal charges. Some observers say South may have deterred Schwarzenegger from running.

There's another possibility. Maybe Schwarzenegger deliberately raised the possibility of a 2002 race to see how enemies would go after him in 2006. Now that South has revealed the outlines of his attack plan, Schwarzenegger has four years to figure out his responses. If you doubt that Schwarzenegger is capable of such calculation, see "Pumping Iron," the 1977 documentary that made him a star. (An enhanced version premieres Friday on Cinemax). Even as a young bodybuilder, the film shows, he was already waging psychological warfare on opponents.

The former Mr. Universe is literally the embodiment of self-discipline. This fall, he campaigned for his initiative with the same single-mindedness he once applied to his abs and pecs. He mastered the policy details, stuck to his message and deftly sidestepped questions about other issues. If Bill Simon had such discipline, he'd have the governorship -- and big biceps too.

Schwarzenegger also has a knack for making friends in high places -- very high places. Calling Schwarzenegger a "Miracle Man," the Rev. Robert H. Schuller let him promote the initiative in the Crystal Cathedral, the first such event in the cathedral's history.

The actor's charm extends to the rank and file. During the "Hardball" appearance, a Chapman student posed a probing question about the initiative's limitations. "First of all," he responded, "I want to congratulate you for a great question." Matthews then cracked, "And you're not a politician, right?"

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not just the Terminator. He's the Natural.

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