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Rise of the Politician Could Be the Sequel

He is coy about his plans, but if Arnold Schwarzenegger runs for governor, he may find that scrutiny trumps celebrity.

June 29, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

In his most famous role, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a merciless killer robot in dark sunglasses who sprays bullets at people from a vast arsenal of guns.

Now, the Hollywood icon who built his tough-guy image as "The Terminator" is pondering whether to drop his 33-year film career to run for governor of California.

The timing is ripe: The campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis could give him a chance to seek the job in unique circumstances with distinct advantages over a normal election, strategists say. But the allure of his celebrity candidacy has yet to be tested by the real-world rigors of California politics. The champion bodybuilder has yet to answer scores of questions that any candidate for high office would face. Above all: What qualifies Schwarzenegger to govern a state of 34 million people as it teeters on the edge of fiscal collapse?

In the last week, Schwarzenegger has chatted with Regis Philbin, Howard Stern and other national talk-show hosts to plug "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," which opens Wednesday. In fawning interviews that political rivals could only envy, Schwarzenegger faced few serious questions. Instead, he shared his thoughts on plastic surgery (hasn't had any), nude scenes (lifts weights for weeks to prepare) and his diet (eats a lot of ice cream).

On NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," the host asked Schwarzenegger whether he would run for governor. When the shrieks and applause died down, he responded: "In a few days from now, I do have to make a very, very -- probably one of the most difficult -- decisions of my life: what to wear on my opening day of 'Terminator 3.' "

The audience laughed at his playful evasion. But if he runs for governor, Schwarzenegger will face pressure to lay out a concrete public agenda for a state with four times the population of his native Austria.

In broad terms, Schwarzenegger, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has long described himself as a fiscal conservative with moderate views on social issues, a standard Republican formula for victory in a Democratic-leaning state like California.

But on freeway traffic jams, offshore oil drilling, the fiscal crisis, smog, immigration, the state's electricity mess and other big issues, Schwarzenegger's ideas are largely a mystery. Democrats are already pouncing on the lack of specifics.

"It isn't enough to sign autographs and pose with screaming teenage girls," said Garry South, former chief political strategist for Davis. "What does he know about water? What does he know about how the sales tax is administered in California? Anything?"

Schwarzenegger advisors say that if he runs, he will respond to questions on public issues once the campaign begins. For now, they say, he is, in general, well-equipped to be governor, especially given the state's dismal financial shape.

"His character qualifies him," said George Gorton, his chief political strategist. "People, I think, are looking for someone willing to stand up to special interests, and who doesn't care whether they'll be reelected or not, and will bring the kind of solutions he's brought to business and charity."

Schwarzenegger, who lives in a Brentwood compound with his wife, broadcast journalist Maria Shriver, and their four children, oversees a business empire largely unknown to Californians, Gorton said. He owns a shopping mall in Ohio and a Boeing 747 jet that he leases to Singapore Airlines, along with a block of real estate in Santa Monica that includes the Schatzi on Main restaurant, Gorton said.

Schwarzenegger is also chairman and co-founder of Inner-City Games, a national network of after-school programs, and has been active in the Special Olympics. Last year, Schwarzenegger was the lead sponsor of Proposition 49, a successful California ballot measure that could steer up to $455 million a year to after-school programs. John Hein, a California Teachers Assn. leader who worked with him on the campaign, said: "I've learned to like him and respect him and know him as something significantly more than an actor."

As Schwarzenegger decides whether to run, state leaders face wrenching choices to close the record $38-billion budget shortfall that dominates the governor's job. While Davis, a Democrat, has proposed $8 billion in tax hikes and $18 billion in spending cuts, Schwarzenegger has offered no clue to how he would save the state from insolvency. With almost no exceptions, fellow Republicans in the Legislature have refused to raise taxes.

"It's one thing to go around and be a hero for the Inner-City Games and talk about how we need to help underprivileged kids; it's another to say there's state funding for this, and it has to be cut 30%," said GOP strategist Ken Khachigian.

Khachigian is overseeing the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), whose initial remarks this month on guns and other subjects sparked the kind of political troubles that Schwarzenegger could face once he talks about issues.

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