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Schwarzenegger Approach Would Be Hard to Copy

His nontraditional style suited an unusual election. But both parties may seek candidates who can duplicate the result.

October 10, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

Even in an era of outsider, celebrity and self-financed candidates, the nation may not soon see another political campaign like the one that carried Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California governorship, analysts in both parties agree.

From the announcement of his candidacy on "The Tonight Show" to Jay Leno's warmup routine at his victory rally, Schwarzenegger developed a distinctive campaign style built around paid advertising, appearances on television programs known more for entertainment than news and boisterous rallies that emphasized his movie star background.

The campaign minimized Schwarzenegger's engagement with other candidates, confined many of his policy proposals to generalities and limited the opportunities for either the media or uncommitted voters to question him.

While that approach lifted Schwarzenegger to a decisive victory, most experts in both parties believe it would be difficult to replicate without the combination of the actor's fame, the anger in the state toward ousted Gov. Gray Davis and the unusual rules of the recall itself.

"This was unique," said Republican political consultant Bill Dal Col, who managed the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes. "It could only be in a recall, and probably could only be in California, and probably could only be an Arnold-like figure."

Opinions diverge on whether Schwarzenegger's victory will encourage the recruitment of more celebrity candidates. Ronald Reagan's victory as California governor in 1966, after all, did not produce a recruiting rush on the studio lots.

Still, Schwarzenegger's success is likely to accelerate the trend in both parties to recruit candidates from other nontraditional backgrounds, like business executives or even military officials -- especially those with the resources to largely fund their own campaigns.

To many observers, Schwarzenegger's victory demonstrates as dramatically as any election in years that the public is willing to accept candidates it views as strong leaders -- even if the media and political insiders might not consider them qualified on the basis of political experience or detailed command of the issues.

"What defines qualified to the media is different than to the public," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "The media has a completely different evaluation of whether or not Arnold is qualified. The public is looking at character traits and the media is looking for facts and figures."

In some ways, the Schwarzenegger campaign extended trends that have been visible in American politics for at least the past 40 years.

As the hammer blows of Vietnam, Watergate and a flock of successor scandals have eroded the public's trust in government and politicians since the early 1960s, voters have grown increasingly willing to accept candidates for high office who lack long political resumes.

Those candidates have ranged from actors (like Reagan) and other entertainers (like former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998), to, above all, business executives and entrepreneurs (a group Schwarzenegger worked hard to claim membership in as well).

Ross Perot epitomized this trend in the 1992 and '96 presidential races. Richard Riordan successfully crossed from the business world into politics when he was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993. This year, Wesley K. Clark, the retired NATO supreme commander, is offering a variation on the theme by starting his political career with a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Although some outsider candidates have fallen flat, a steady stream have won elections by convincing voters that they would bring fresh, uncorrupted perspectives to government. From Reagan's 1966 description of himself as a "citizen-politician" to Schwarzenegger's pledge to "terminate" the special interests in Sacramento, these candidates, even when beginning with great wealth, have often been able to portray themselves as populists determined to tame an elitist political class.

Like many of his predecessors, Schwarzenegger found that his lack of experience became an asset with disaffected voters because his distance from the political system "made him the ultimate change agent," as Luntz put it.

Schwarzenegger fits squarely in the pattern of such nontraditional candidates in another respect: These outsiders have often been most attractive to parties in the most difficult political situations. California Republicans rallied around Schwarzenegger, even though his views on social issues were to the left of the party mainstream, after a decade of steady retreat -- much as New York City Republicans embraced media magnate Michael Bloomberg, a social liberal, in the 2001 mayoral race there.

Despite such parallels, almost all analysts consider the Schwarzenegger camp's day-to-day strategy a unique approach that would be difficult for other candidates to duplicate.

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