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Gov. Turns to Made-for-TV Events

Battered by union ads, Schwarzenegger seeks to revive his image with tightly staged forums.

October 26, 2005|Michael Finnegan and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — With the special election less than two weeks off, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is moving to rekindle his celebrity appeal and exploit the edge of incumbency while opponents in organized labor step up efforts to discredit him and his agenda.

For the campaign's final sprint to Nov. 8, the Republican governor has used his clout to get television stations across California to agree to broadcast tightly staged events in settings that fit his strategy of portraying himself as an agent of the people.

The first such question-and-answer forum Monday in this Bay Area suburb suggested that he plans to use the free airtime largely to try to repair his frayed image as a nonpartisan centrist. He contrasted himself with what he described as "union bosses" prone to buying off entrenched legislators in Sacramento -- a counterpoint to labor's charge that Schwarzenegger is beholden to corporate donors.

"I'm not a politician," he said, echoing the populist approach he used to win the recall race two years ago. "I'm an outsider."

Like KTVU-TV, the Oakland station that aired the forum, Los Angeles and Fresno stations have also agreed to sponsor events largely on Schwarzenegger's terms in the days ahead: Opponents get equal time, but do not appear on stage with the governor, and he takes questions only from voters, not a panel of reporters.

Yet for all the television exposure, the reach of these events is limited. In a state as vast as California, a widely shown television ad is far more potent than a broadcast forum. And in the campaign's closing weeks, the blast of ads against Schwarzenegger will only intensify as unions steadily increase the frequency of their spots on the assumption that more voters will be paying close attention.

Labor has already vastly outspent Schwarzenegger on advertising, wounding several of his initiatives and driving down his personal popularity as he prepares to seek reelection next year. Union strategists took comfort this week in Schwarzenegger's decision to yank the only ad he was airing that showed him directly appealing to voters. Strategists for the governor say the ad had simply run through its scheduled cycle and they were limiting the campaign, for the time being, to other ads.

"Why would they do that? They know he's failing," said Gale Kaufman, a top campaign strategist for the California Teachers Assn. and other unions battling the governor.

For the most part, the audience for televised election forums -- even ones that feature a Hollywood star like Schwarzenegger -- are "political junkies," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

"Attending a bunch of town halls will not get him through the clutter" of ads, Quinn said.

Beyond TV, Schwarzenegger and his adversaries are accelerating their mail and telephone appeals to precisely targeted segments of voters, tailoring messages to each group amid a blizzard of television ads that have left many voters confused by the choices they face. For both sides, the goal is to maximize the turnout of supporters for the special election on eight initiatives.

Schwarzenegger is campaigning for four of them: Proposition 74, which would lengthen the time it takes for teachers to get tenure from two years to five; Proposition 75, which would require unions to get written permission from members before spending their dues on political campaigns; Proposition 76, which would restrain state spending, enhance the governor's budget power and adjust minimum school spending rules; and Proposition 77, which would put retired judges in charge of drawing election districts for state and federal legislators.

Through an assortment of ads against the various initiatives, union leaders are pressing on two fronts.

First, they hope to galvanize members by portraying Schwarzenegger's agenda as a threat to wages and benefits. To the broader audience of voters, they are arguing that union workers are being punished for standing up to the governor.

They also are trying -- through relentless repetition -- to keep the campaign's focus on the most popular government workers. One of their latest ads shows a nurse fiddling with her stethoscope and a firefighter denouncing Schwarzenegger in front of a firetruck.

"How did teachers, nurses and firefighters become the enemy all of a sudden?" Rose Ann DeMoro, leader of the California Nurses Assn., asked at the Walnut Creek forum before Schwarzenegger's arrival on stage.

On the governor's side, Republicans are trying to spur a strong showing of evangelical conservatives by trumpeting Schwarzenegger's support for Proposition 73, which would bar most abortions for minors without parental notification. The governor has not aired ads on the measure but his support has been highlighted in party mailers.

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