SACRAMENTO — She is not yet sure what her role is -- first lady, television journalist, or both. And don't ask how the house hunt is going.
"It's not," said Maria Shriver. But Shriver is clear on one point: In a tough political climate, her husband is showing a measure of courage and vision that voters respect.
"Everywhere I go, people come up and say, 'Your husband's doing an extraordinary job. Tell him to hang in there. Tell him we're thinking about him,' " Shriver said in her first question-and-answer session with reporters since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in Nov. 17.
"That's what people say to me when I'm out on the street for a cup of coffee. This is a huge state, and this is going to be rough. And I think everybody knew that going in. And people come up to me and say, 'Arnold has incredible optimism. He has incredible vision. He wants this state to be great.' "
Shriver spoke at the Sacramento Food Bank Services, where she and her 12-year-old daughter, Christina, passed out turkeys, cranberry sauce and apple juice Wednesday to scores of people in need who waited in the morning chill for Thanksgiving groceries.
She had called the food bank the day before and asked if she could volunteer -- signaling the family's commitment, an aide said, to join in the capital's daily rhythms. Toward that end, the governor, Shriver and their children turned up in the owner's box for a Sacramento Kings basketball game Tuesday, risking the enmity of Laker fans everywhere. Their sons, Patrick, 10, and Christopher, 6, were seen wearing Kings jerseys. After a time, they moved from the box to courtside seats, where they were greeted by fans.
Shriver said she has been coming to Thanksgiving food banks since she was a little girl accompanying her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. To the women and men who lined up for groceries, she introducing herself with, "Hi, I'm Maria." She signed autographs, posed for pictures and quietly offered a few words of instruction to her daughter, who called out names of people to come forward for their food.
She asked for shopping bags so that people wouldn't have to clutch ice-cold turkeys on the way home.
"Can you carry all that?" Shriver asked one man, who had taken a shopping cart's worth of food.
"I'm big, like your husband," he assured her.
For their part, the Schwarzenggers were planning a Thanksgiving dinner at the Potomac, Md., home of Shriver's parents. The family is to return to California on Saturday.
In the three days Schwarzenegger is out of state, the acting governor will be Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). Burton is subbing for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who will also be out of state.
Asked how he might exercise his temporary powers, Burton, talking from a cell phone while stuck in traffic, said: "I'm going to liberate a turkey."
Shriver's comments followed a frenetic week and a half in office in which her husband embraced steep spending cuts intended to narrow a budget shortfall of at least $17 billion.
Targeted for cuts are health care and food programs that serve some of the same people lined up at the food bank.
"Nobody likes the cuts," she said. "Arnold doesn't like the cuts. There's nobody who takes joy in that. And his hope is that California will come back and that one will be able to put money into programs in the future. But that's not the case right now.
"Is that painful? Yes. It's painful for everybody in California. But I think it's a time when people need to come together."
Shriver said she returned to work at NBC News in the past week after being on leave during her husband's campaign. Much about her new life is still being sorted out, she said.
Asked to define her role, she said, "No, I can't. I have absolutely no idea. In all honesty I'm a work in progress," she said. " ... I hope to try to make a difference in this new role. But my first priority will be my children. I'm a big believer that parenting is the most important role that any person, male or female, can do in their life."
She would like to find a house in Sacramento, but so far the search has turned up nothing. Now, when the governor is in Sacramento he stays at a Hyatt hotel near the Capitol.
"If you have a great house," Shriver said, "let me know."
Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.