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'Show Me' County Shows It's Not Star-Struck

Many residents of Kern say Schwarzenegger's campaign lacks specifics. Even some backers worry the actor is a closet Democrat.

August 20, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

SHAFTER, Calif. — Wally Reimer and Harry Helsley have never seen a "Terminator" movie, but they were watching closely while California spent itself into a fiscal crisis.

So this week, as Arnold Schwarzenegger prepared to air the first television advertisement of the campaign, these two conservative farmers, had state finances on their minds. Both said they could not begin to take Schwarzenegger seriously as a gubernatorial candidate until he offers a detailed plan to balance the state's books.

Here in Kern County -- a Republican stronghold that is culturally closer to mid-Missouri than the salons of Brentwood -- support is strong for the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. But many voters are taking a "show me" approach to Schwarzenegger's bid to replace the governor.

Reimer and Helsley spent the breakfast hour at this tiny farm town's McDonald's, trading doubts about the movie-star candidate's true Republican mettle. So far, all Reimer knows about Schwarzenegger is that he has a Kennedy for a wife and an interest in after-school programs -- which makes the 78-year-old suspicious that the actor is a "socialist type," and a "tax-and-spend liberal."

Helsley, 75, doesn't know what to think, except that he likes other GOP candidates better. His favorite, he said, is state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, whose long record as a conservative legislator Helsley admires. By contrast, with Schwarzenegger, "I don't know the guy," Helsley said. "He hasn't really said anything."

Many voters here say they think Schwarzenegger has the best chance to win among a field of less-glitzy Republicans that includes McClintock, Bill Simon Jr., and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

Because of that, they are trying to keep open minds. But Schwarzenegger's numerous liberal friends and few specific policy positions breed suspicion here that the actor is a Democrat in sheep's clothing.

Such skepticism could be a serious problem for Schwarzenegger. The last centrist Republican to seek the governor's chair, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, saw his campaign founder in the San Joaquin Valley during the March 2002 gubernatorial primary. He was roundly beaten by Simon in the mainly rural counties of Kern, Kings, Tulare and Merced. In Kern, the most populous of the four, Simon received 51% of the Republican vote, compared with 22% for Riordan.

Like many cities in this area, northwest of Bakersfield, Shafter is an agricultural town, built amid long vistas of cotton fields and almond groves, dusty in the hot summer sun. At Video Choice in the city's small, quiet downtown, customers in large numbers have been asking for the store's sole copy of the first "Terminator" movie, said Yvette Garcia, the manager.

That sort of star power gives Schwarzenegger greater name recognition than Riordan ever had in this area, said Mark Abernathy, a longtime GOP operative who managed the recall petition drive from Bakersfield.

But to be successful in the Central Valley, Abernathy said, the actor needs to do what Riordan didn't and prove that he is truly a Republican -- not an L.A. liberal trading on the name.

"Schwarzenegger can win," said Abernathy, who has also managed numerous local political campaigns. "But that's not the whole story in voters' minds, at least around here. They've got to know if Schwarzenegger is really a Republican."

Indeed, some voters here already side with Schwarzenegger, although not always enthusiastically. Ron Lehr, who grows oranges and potatoes in the Arvin-Edison area, said he will vote for Schwarzenegger if he's still leading the Republican pack.

Still, "I have problems with him," said Lehr, who thinks the actor is too liberal.

For others, Schwarzenegger's liberal tendencies on social issues already have been enough to rule him out. Steve Hunt, a pastor at Bakersfield's First Assembly of God church, fits into that category.

The preacher interrupted a recent sermon about the value of an honest day's work with a few cracks about the recall, eliciting a few chuckles when he said he should have thrown his own hat in the ring. "We need to pray about that whole mess," he told his flock.

Hunt and his wife, Melodee, both 49 and registered Republicans, said they needed to do more research before settling on a candidate. But Schwarzenegger, they said, was definitely out.

Not everyone in church was of the same mind, but many have questions to ask. Anthony Terrazas, 45, a construction worker and Republican, said he wasn't quite sure what Schwarzenegger stood for, but he trusted him to find competent advisors to guide him through the budget mess. Terrazas said he plans to vote for him.

Frank Jones, 83, a World War II veteran and Republican, said he could not vote for Schwarzenegger because of the actor's father's ties to the Nazi party. Jones' wife, Elizabeth, said she wants more details on the issues.

"I want to know what he stands for," she said.

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