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Far From Left Coast, Many See Schwarzenegger as Mr. Right

August 31, 2004|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

VINTON, Va. — At the Roanoke County GOP's annual Shrimpfest, the subject was November's national election. The crowd and speakers were as spicy as the fish, spitting out fiery, conservative opinions against abortion, gay rights and restrictions on gun ownership.

But as these southwest Virginians watch this week's Republican National Convention, many said, the speech most are interested in hearing is tonight's address by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a self-styled moderate. That's because from afar, Schwarzenegger looks to many very conservative Republicans like one of their own.

"I like him. I wish we had him here in Virginia," said Polly Johnson, a 78-year-old retiree who sits on the state Republican central committee and helped organize the event this month. "He's such a strong conservative on the issues."

Schwarzenegger, in fact, supports abortion rights, favors a number of gun control measures and has said he has no personal objections to gay marriage. Asked about the governor's statements on such matters, Johnson said she hadn't heard them and expressed disbelief: "Deep down, he just comes across as a conservative."

Schwarzenegger's convention speech tonight will provide him, for the first time since he took office, with an opportunity to speak to a national television audience from a purely political platform. As his appearance neared, the clamor to hear or glimpse California's governor grew in New York City's convention haunts. Reports of Schwarzenegger sightings abounded early Monday, even before the governor's plane took off from California. Three Republican groups sent out news releases saying that Schwarzenegger would appear at events on Sunday and early Monday -- even though he did not arrive in New York until late Monday.

His speech has been billed as a way for the GOP to show a more moderate face to the country. But as Vinton's Republicans indicated, many of his more centrist views on social issues have been drowned out by the gun-toting images from his movies.

Aides to the governor say Schwarzenegger intends to use the 15- to 20-minute address as an introduction. He will endorse Bush's reelection but focus on his own journey as an immigrant from socialist Austria to proud Republican.

The governor also probably will take the opportunity to describe what he sees as his successes on fiscal issues in California: workers' compensation reform and a budget without new taxes. Aides hint that he is unlikely to mention his more moderate positions on social issues in any detail.

That approach is not new. Schwarzenegger's emphasis on his fiscal positions -- combined with his tough-guy image and hard-line rhetoric, such as his recent description of Democratic state legislators as "girlie men" -- has helped project a more conservative view of him nationally than in California. A recent CNN poll found Schwarzenegger less popular among Democrats nationally than he has been in other surveys in California, where his moderate positions are better known.

In a carefully choreographed campaign of national media interviews he conducted this summer, he talked up his stance on taxes and his desire to make California business-friendly. Only when asked directly does Schwarzenegger offer his views on social issues.

At the convention too, Schwarzenegger will not go out of his way to court moderates, though some of his appearances will certainly underscore his centrist tendencies. He is not scheduled to attend any meetings or parties put on by Republican groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans -- a gay rights GOP organization -- that had hoped the party would moderate its social platform.

Instead, he will stick to familiar venues during his three-day visit, the estimated $350,000 cost of which is being paid by corporations, including drug companies who oppose healthcare related bills that soon will land on his desk. He plans to visit a Harlem school to highlight his support for after-school programs, attend a tribute organized by the motion picture and recording industries and drop by a lunch for the California delegation at Planet Hollywood.

Trying to build suspense, Schwarzenegger has been tight-lipped about the exact contents of his speech. Aides say he has spent two months working on it with former Reagan speechwriter Landon Parvin, who was credited with Schwarzenegger's inaugural and State of the State addresses.

The governor's communications director, Rob Stutzman, said Schwarzenegger will "share what he's shared with voters in California as to why he's a Republican, and to give a personal story of why he's chosen to be in the Republican Party."

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