How Schwarzenegger
Turned It Around

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It has been a very good summer for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, politically speaking. With three months to go until his re-election, the Republican governor is mounting a comeback. Just last fall he seemed imminently beatable, after several ballot initiatives he championed were overwhelming rejected. According to results from the latest statewide Field Poll, as of July Schwarzenegger's job approval rating had rebounded to 49%, from 36% a year ago. Most importantly, the poll showed that after trailing his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, in voter preference surveys throughout the summer and fall of 2005, the Governor now leads by 8 points, 45% to 37%. "Voters are responding to the Governor's positive and optimistic message," says his campaign communications director, Katie Levinson.

Republican strategists attribute the turnaround to Schwarzenegger’s return to the centrist persona that got him elected. He has made a show of distancing himself from the unpopular President Bush, including rejecting a White House request to boost the number of California National Guardsmen patrolling the border. Schwarzenegger also extended a loan to fund stem cell research in the state following a Bush veto of a federal funding bill. Additionally, he has worked with the Democratic-controlled legislature to get four bond proposals on the fall ballot intended to finance his multibillion-dollar infrastructure overhaul plan. Then there was the surprise windfall: an unexpected spike in tax revenues from the improving state economy allowed him to repay money to schools that he had borrowed to help balance the budget.

Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist, says Schwarzenegger's recent policy moves have cheered the GOP moderates who are so key to his base. He does risk potential defections among hard-core social conservatives infuriated by his support of abortion rights and domestic partnerships, but may be able to compensate by attracting a chunk of "persuadable independents," such as women and conservative suburban-dwelling Latinos. "His advisors are putting together a coalition customized for this candidate," says Hoffenblum.

Watching Schwarzenegger’s summer surge, the Angelides camp is surely hoping that the political adage about voters not focusing on fall elections until after Labor Day holds true this time around. Still bandaged from his bruising and expensive Democratic primary in June, the Treasurer is facing Republican Party TV ads that repeat accusations from his Democratic rival that he will levy billions in new taxes. Angelides counters that the new assessments would apply only to the wealthy and to corporations. He also tried to erase doubts among the crowd at a Democratic meeting last weekend saying, "No matter how many punches they throw, I’m still standing." And he’s on the attack this week with a plan to rid the state capital of special interest influence, claiming Schwarzenegger hasn’t honored his three-year-old campaign promise to do it. The Governor’s staff, in response, accused Angelides of accepting contributions from companies seeking business from the state employees’ retirement fund, of which he is a trustee.

"If the election were held in August, Democrats would be right to be worried," says Jason Kinney, a political consultant and former speechwriter for Democratic Governor Gray Davis who isn’t affiliated with the Angelides campaign. "But there’s still a long way to go. Once Phil’s message becomes focused and the campaign starts gaining momentum, everything else will follow."

Still, that probably needs to happen sooner rather than later for Angelides. Last week Gov. Schwarzenegger collected the endorsements of prominent California Democrats and Dreamworks SKG studio founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.