BY TRADITIONAL political standards, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should be on the ropes. His job approval ratings hover in the low 40s, historically a harbinger of defeat for incumbents seeking reelection. He has retreated from his advocacy of state government reforms since voters rejected four of them in a 2005 special election. He is seeking reelection in a dismal year for Republicans. The party is weighed down by an unpopular president, is split over immigration legislation and is buffeted by growing opposition to the war in Iraq.
This should be great news for state Controller Steve Westly and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who are vying in next week's primary for the right to challenge Schwarzenegger in November. But to the surprise of many -- and the consternation of the two Democrats -- Schwarzenegger is making an astonishing political comeback that has, in many respects, turned the Westly-Angelides race into a sideshow. While Westly and Angelides are beating each other's brains out and annoying voters with shrill and negative attacks on television, Schwarzenegger has pulled even with them in polls and is favored to win reelection in November.
The governor has patched up his differences with the education lobby that challenged and routed his ballot proposals. He has reached a truce with Democratic legislative leaders, who have been touring the state with him on behalf of a $37-billion bond measure to repair California's crumbling infrastructure.
There are several explanations for Schwarzenegger's comeback. One is a spurt in the state economy, which has produced a windfall in tax revenue. The governor is using the money to pay back $2 billion to the schools that he borrowed during a budget squeeze and to pay down the state's considerable debt. His steady opposition to tax increases has pacified right-wingers in his party and given him the luxury of a Republican primary without opposition. This has helped him to appear statesmanlike and to focus on such bipartisan issues as the infrastructure bond.
But the biggest single reason that Schwarzenegger is favored to win reelection is that a significant majority of voters, including those who take a dim view of his policies, like him. He descended into politics as a popular celebrity known from his movies, particularly the "Terminator" films, and this aura still clings to him despite his many political mishaps. A poll in March by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that, his policies notwithstanding, 71% of prospective voters said they liked the governor.
When any incumbent enters an election with the personal approval of more than 70% of the electorate, he has a leg up on his opponents. "There's a reservoir of goodwill for Gov. Schwarzenegger," said H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the state Department of Finance and the governor's chief spokesman on fiscal issues. "People want him to succeed because they want the state to succeed."
Schwarzenegger's personality was an asset in the recall election that ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis, a lifelong politician who came across as wooden. His likability contrasts with the unpopularity of President Bush. Although the Public Policy Institute poll didn't directly measure Bush's likability, a spate of national polls have shown that many Americans, including overwhelming majorities of Democrats and independents, have an unfavorable personal impression of the president and also reject many of his policies. Likability isn't everything, but it can cushion a political leader in bad times, as it did President Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair and President Clinton throughout his impeachment ordeal.
Is likability enough to reelect Schwarzenegger? That depends in part on whether the November election becomes a referendum on Bush at the expense of Republican candidates. Though the Democrats undoubtedly will try to make this linkage, Schwarzenegger has an independent standing with the voters as a celebrity. He has never been close to Bush and has often differed with him on issues, most recently on border security and global warming. The greater concern of the governor's political operatives is that a political implosion of Bush might dampen Republican turnout, as happened in the 1974 elections after the resignation of President Nixon. Even if that happened, they believe Schwarzenegger can survive because of his relatively strong standing with the state's growing number of independent voters.
Schwarzenegger has made the most of his personal popularity in recent months by confessing mistakes -- another contrast with Bush -- and avoiding the sarcasm that marked his early dealings with the Legislature.