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THE SPECIAL ELECTION | NEWS ANALYSIS

After Debacle, Will Governor Regain Favor?

November 10, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

As he sifts through the rubble of his special election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can take solace in one thing: Californians tend to give their governors a second chance.

"That's what he's got to work with," said Mark Baldassare, a pollster for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "He's a sitting governor. He can use that stage. He can try to accomplish things."

Small consolation, perhaps, after such an unmitigated political debacle. But it is something for Schwarzenegger to seize upon as he begins fighting to be reelected next year -- as an improbable underdog with good reason to doubt his Sacramento team and a large number of voters who, in turn, doubt him.

The 2006 campaign has effectively been underway since the governor declared the special election back in June. Now that voters have thumpingly rejected Schwarzenegger's ballot initiatives, the political skirmishing shifts in a way that can work to the incumbent's advantage.

Up to now, the dynamic has been Schwarzenegger vs. Schwarzenegger. In the minds of many voters, it was a comparison between the flawed governor of union advertisements and his earlier self: the tax-cutting superstar who was going to jackhammer Sacramento the way he blew up evildoers in the movies.

"No mortal's going to measure up to that ideal," said Don Sipple, who created advertising for the governor's ballot measures. Without minimizing Schwarzenegger's political problems, Sipple pointed out that the 2006 race will eventually become a contrast between the governor and "a real piece of human flesh, with upsides and downsides." That is a race, Sipple suggests, that Schwarzenegger stands a much better chance of winning.

History can also offer some succor. The last California governor to lose after a lone term in office was Culbert Olson, in 1942. The last 20 years have yielded a string of embattled incumbents who ended up winning reelection, sometimes handily: George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis.

"I like to recall the people 'elected' in odd-numbered years: Gov. Tom Bradley, Gov. Kathleen Brown, Gov. Dan Lungren, Gov. John Van de Kamp," said Tony Quinn, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Sacramento, referring to hopefuls who seemed like solid bets a year out, only to lose to "dead ducks."

Moreover, for all the damage done by Schwarzenegger's lurch to the right over the past year, it did help him in one way. For now at least, the governor seems to have forestalled the possibility of a damaging primary challenge.

Not so for the Democrats. The party's two main hopefuls -- state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly -- seem ready to spend tens of millions of dollars to validate the old saw about politics being a contact sport.

Already, the Westly campaign has attacked Angelides as "a slimy developer" in a memo, sent to reporters over the summer, that referred to the treasurer's previous occupation. While Angelides has yet to return the favor, it seems unlikely he will be so restrained once that level of provocation reaches the public airwaves sometime next year.

All of those factors might be tallied as the good news for Schwarzenegger, who spent Wednesday hunkered out of the public eye. There is a good deal more bad news for Republicans to worry about, starting with the governor's relative lack of political experience -- which could stunt his efforts to build a substantive record of achievement on which to run.

"The truth about both Gov. Wilson and Gov. Davis is they were both skilled veteran politicians who understood how to use their office successfully to advance their political ambitions," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign strategist in Los Angeles who worked to defeat Proposition 77, the governor's redistricting initiative. "We have not seen that from Gov. Schwarzenegger."

Nor, Carrick added, has the governor "shown much capacity for the sort of grind-it-out, day-to-day focus that were trademarks for both Wilson and Davis." Voters will not, he said, "just sit around and accept his sound-bite approach to being governor."

And while Angelides and Westly may be otherwise engaged for some time, the governor's chief tormentors -- the labor unions that poured roughly $100 million into the effort to beat him at the ballot -- show no sign of backing off. While toning down some of their harsher rhetoric Wednesday, leaders of the union coalition said at a Sacramento victory news conference that they would continue their united approach against him.

"One of the unintended consequences that this governor didn't anticipate was bringing together a group of people who have not worked together before," said Barbara Kerr, head of the California Teachers Assn., which led the anti-Schwarzenegger assault. "We found out we can work together, we found out we have a common agenda and we found out we like each other."

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