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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Film Persona a 'Double-Edged Sword' for Schwarzenegger

September 26, 2003|Matea Gold and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

As Arnold Schwarzenegger has moved from actor to candidate, he has brought with him the character that he made famous in the "Terminator" movies, frequently invoking the deadly cyborg as a metaphor on the campaign trail.

Schwarzenegger speaks of his intent to "terminate" the car tax and says he'll be known as "the Collectionator" as governor because he will squeeze more money out of the federal government.

In an op-ed article published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, he referred to the tax increases proposed by Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as "the androids that I fight in the 'Terminator' movies, which I keep shooting dead, but keep coming back to life."

During the debate Wednesday among the major candidates running to replace Davis, Schwarzenegger told independent candidate Arianna Huffington that he had a good role for her in "Terminator 4" -- a comment she immediately condemned as offensive.

By playing up his alter ego for a media-saturated audience, Schwarzenegger is cloaking himself in "the Hummer image of the world in which raw power rules," said USC English professor Ron Gottesman, who studies media, film and violence. "It's a kind of myth of the West where only the strong and brutal survive."

Those references are "very much a double-edged sword," Gottesman said. "Or, rather, a two-ended automatic weapon."

The candidate's advisors say they view the movie lines as an asset, a reminder to voters of what separates him from other politicians. His opponents, by contrast, have seized on the movie references as evidence that Schwarzenegger is an actor who does not understand the complexities of government.

In the campaign's view, the movie lines are "popular, red-meat-type language that the troops like to hear," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.

The campaign has embraced the candidate's Hollywood persona. The lobby of his Santa Monica headquarters is decorated with a mural of the actor dressed as the Terminator, shooting through a brick wall.

And many large audiences respond when Schwarzenegger delivers his signature lines, in part because a good portion of those who flock to his events are young, male movie fans. Young men tend not to vote in large numbers, and if the movie references could cause them to turn out more heavily than normal, Schwarzenegger's campaign presumably would benefit.

In a rally at a Fresno mall last month, Schwarzenegger declared he was not coming "today as the 'Terminator,' or the guy who fought the 'Predator' " -- but then alluded to his movie career a half-dozen times, each time drawing huge ovations.

During a visit to Long Beach State on Sept. 3, Schwarzenegger drew a roar from the crowd of 700 when he called Davis and Bustamante the "Twin Terminators" of Sacramento. But as he delivered his standard stump speech, devoid of movie references, a few hundred students drifted away.

Republican consultant Sheri Annis, who worked as Schwarzenegger's press secretary during his Proposition 49 campaign last year, said the actor recites his movie lines so often simply because they work.

"People have responded to the one-liners that are identified with him in the past, and so he's continuing with the one-liners that work," she said.

But she agreed that Schwarzenegger must be careful not to let his "Terminator" references overshadow his policy proposals.

"A more generic audience loves it. They see him as someone coming in there and saying, 'I've come to save the day. I'm Mighty Arnold,' " she said. "A policy wonk group wants to see if he really belongs in their club."

Indeed, one line of attack that Schwarzenegger's opponents employ is that his understanding of issues is shallow.

"It's nice to say, 'Hasta la vista,' " Gov. Gray Davis said during a stop in Monterey Park on Thursday, "but the bottom line is ... we need detailed plans."

But the movie references also can be used as an opening for other forms of criticism.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, for example, has used Schwarzenegger's movie career as a way of depicting him as out of touch with ordinary Californians. Bustamante frequently contrasts his own working-class background with the actor's lavish lifestyle.

"He doesn't live in our world," Bustamante says in a new television commercial his campaign began running this week. "He lives on Planet Hollywood."

Ronald Reagan, to whom Schwarzenegger is sometimes compared, faced similar attacks when he made the transition from actor to candidate in his race for governor in 1966, according to his biographer Lou Cannon. Worried that Reagan would be dismissed as a lightweight, his advisors discouraged him from talking about his Hollywood career on the campaign trail, Cannon said.

Still, the Democrats made an issue out of his background, frequently taunting Reagan as merely an actor. The strategy didn't work, Cannon noted.

"People don't like it when you attack somebody for their occupation," he said. "It backfired."

But Reagan, unlike Schwarzenegger, had been politically active and cut his teeth on policy addresses long before he jumped into the governor's race, Cannon noted. "In Reagan's case, the other guys were saying he was an empty suit, and he wasn't," Cannon said.

Whether Schwarzenegger's Hollywood background also will stand up against criticism from rivals remains to be seen.

But regardless of the outcome, his film references are such a signature of his campaign that when McClintock inadvertently used one of Schwarzenegger's lines after the debate Wednesday night, he quickly acknowledged venturing onto his opponent's territory. As he skipped over one reporter to call on another at a post-debate news conference, McClintock assured him, "I'll be back."

The press room burst into laughter as the senator corrected himself with a grin. "Oops, I can't say that, can I?" he said.

*

Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo contributed to this report.

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