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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION | George Skelton CAPITOL
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Schwarzenegger's Prime-Time Task: Broaden the GOP

August 30, 2004|George Skelton

New York — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be given a politician's equivalent of a basketball free throw Tuesday night. A football kicker's chip shot field goal. An uncontested tennis smash.

There'll be one major difference, however: Schwarzenegger will be ringing up a lot more points if he executes. And it's hard to see how he would miss.

California's celebrity governor is being handed a prime-time speaker's slot at the Republican National Convention to promote himself and expound his views directly to a nationwide TV audience, unfiltered by any prickly media pests.

There'll be no annoying questions about rhetoric vs. reality -- his promising to "tear up the politicians' credit cards" in Sacramento, then going on a borrowing binge; his vowing to fight the special interests, while tapping them for record stashes of political money. Little hypocrisies like that.

The major networks have opted to carry Schwarzenegger's speech Tuesday and pass on addresses by Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tonight. They skipped one night of the Democratic convention, so feel obligated to also blow off one GOP session. Clearly, they think Schwarzenegger is the better draw.

There's reportedly some anxiety at the White House that Schwarzenegger will attract a bigger TV audience than President Bush on Thursday night, a feat that could be called "upstaging."

For the governor, this is a golden opportunity to enhance his national image, expanding it into another dimension. He'll always be the movie action hero. With the proper speech, he can cause viewers to also visualize him as a political statesman.

But, one might say, so what? Schwarzenegger cannot run for president because he's not a natural-born citizen. Don't bet on U.S. senators who think they ought to be president ever voting to amend the Constitution to help Schwarzenegger.

Still, this governor conceivably could be a future player on the world stage -- U. N. ambassador? Secretary of State? -- and easily could run for the U.S. Senate. Besides, he's an overachiever who has always striven to be the biggest and the best -- and to generate options for himself.

The key on Tuesday, I suspect, is to convince TV viewers -- and the party core seated in Madison Square Garden -- that he's about more than just Arnold Schwarzenegger. His words and delivery need to convey the message that he's not in this merely for personal gratification, but sincerely wants to improve conditions for people and to reform government.

He could start by dropping the "girlie men" lingo. That may produce chortles from macho men, but does nothing to expand his political fan base.

One-liners are his specialty. His movie dialogue often hasn't been much more than that. But he'll need more substance for his first nationally televised political address.

Schwarzenegger has declined to publicly discuss his speech. He wants to keep it a mystery to build up suspense and viewership. Hollywood-style.

But California Republican activists probably caught a preview at their state convention about a year ago. He gave a "Why I'm a Republican" speech, talking about growing up in socialist Austria and "knowing America was the place for me."

"What I saw in Austria made me anti-communist," he said. "What I saw [later] in California made me a free-enterprise, fiscally conservative Republican.... By working hard and playing by the rules, my immigrant dreams came true."

Those are applause lines, especially for the Republican right.

Moderates will be listening to hear whether he's bold enough to also mention that -- unlike Bush -- he favors abortion rights and gun control and is rather ambivalent about same-sex marriage. Don't count on it.

Schwarzenegger will make it clear he supports Bush's reelection. And he'll express support for U.S. troops in Iraq. But his backing of the president's war policies may be more subtle.

It's unlikely you'll hear a direct attack on his friend, Democratic candidate John F. Kerry.

And he probably won't spend much time boasting about his record in Sacramento. That would seem too provincial and self-serving.

Expect an American Dream speech -- one with the potential to be the GOP's answer to Democratic rising star Barack Obama's stemwinder in Boston.

"You could write this rolling off a log," says Ken Khachigian, a San Clemente political strategist and onetime speechwriter for presidents Nixon and Reagan. "It's an immigrant success story. America, the land of opportunity. He could also talk about tolerance and an open society."

"The more Arnold Schwarzenegger is on TV talking about being a Republican, the more it broadens the party," says Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a convention delegate.

"Schwarzenegger is a good template for everybody," says another delegate, accountant Martha House of Hacienda Heights. "He started out with nothing. Worked hard. Practiced self-discipline. Didn't wait for the government to give him everything he has."

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