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National Conservative Groups Warm Up to Schwarzenegger

Republican Leadership Council has endorsed him, and anti-tax groups are courting, hoping he'll take a definitive stance on their issue.

August 24, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After initial skepticism, some national conservative and Republican groups are cautiously warming to Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid for the California governorship.

One national GOP group endorsed Schwarzenegger last week and said it would air television ads in California to help his candidacy. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, a leading voice among conservatives, lavishly praised Schwarzenegger on his Web site late last week, after having questioned the actor's conservative credentials. And national anti-tax groups, such as the influential Americans for Tax Reform, are pledging to intervene on Schwarzenegger's behalf if he solidifies his opposition to new taxes.

Although national conservative groups at first remained aloof from the bid to oust California Gov. Gray Davis, their leaders increasingly view the recall as an opportunity to generate momentum heading into next year's congressional and presidential voting.

"It will set a tone for next year," said Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading conservative strategist.

Support from national conservative leaders could help Schwarzenegger blunt the efforts by state Sen. Tom McClintock to drive GOP voters away from the actor by portraying him as insufficiently conservative. After Saturday's withdrawal by Bill Simon Jr., McClintock is the most conservative Republican remaining in the race.

The risk for Schwarzenegger and the conservative groups is that a heightened role by these activists would play into Davis' effort to frame the recall as a "right-wing power grab." In a speech at UCLA last week, Davis called the contest "part of an ongoing effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win."

Both California and national Republicans vigorously deny that the recall is part of a larger national strategy. And recall supporters in California note that many national Republicans kept their distance when Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) provided crucial financing to help qualify the effort for the ballot.

Although the California Republican Party eventually came on board, the Republican National Committee has not provided any resources for the recall or endorsed it. Said RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie: "This is something for the voters of California to decide for themselves."

Other than a single comment praising Schwarzenegger as a potential governor, President Bush has avoided public comment on the recall.

Yet as polls show Davis vulnerable and Schwarzenegger emerging as a possible successor, national Republican and conservative groups are moving toward more direct involvement in the race.

The most tangible national GOP assistance to Schwarzenegger came when he received an endorsement from the Republican Leadership Council on Monday. Founded in 1997, the council urges the GOP to take conservative views on economic issues but moderate positions on social issues -- a profile similar to Schwarzenegger's own.

Rich Galen, the group's senior communications advisor, said it plans to run ads supporting Schwarzenegger if lawyers determine that is allowable under California campaign law. If they determine it is not permissible to directly back Schwarzenegger, the group will fund ads supporting the recall, he said.

Either way, Galen said, "we will also be urging our members and supporters who live in California to take an active role in Arnold's campaign."

Social conservative groups have generally remained aloof from the race, in part because of Schwarzenegger's support for legalized abortion.

"Right now, everybody is just watching and waiting," said Keith Appell, a public relations consultant for several social conservative groups.

But anti-tax and anti-spending conservative organizations are considering a role in the recall campaign. Schwarzenegger's camp has been negotiating for support from the Club for Growth, a leading conservative political action committee, as well as the large network of groups that revolve around Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform organization.

Norquist said that for Schwarzenegger, the key to gaining broader conservative support will be hardening his stand against new taxes. At a news conference Wednesday, Schwarzenegger came out strongly against taxes as a means to solve the state's budget shortfall but said he could not rule out tax increases to meet emergencies such as earthquakes.

Norquist is pressing Schwarzenegger to sign a pledge the group promotes that commits politicians not to support any net increase in taxes. "I think over the next week or so we'll see whether Arnold succeeds or fails in nailing down that he is not going to raise taxes," Norquist said. "Should he do that, then I think you will see a coming together around his campaign, and then you will see both Republicans and conservatives getting excited in California and nationally."

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