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Governor Schwarzenegger Regains Support in California

September 22, 2006 at 6:08 PM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Against all predictions, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back from near political death. After his approval ratings dropped to just 31 percent a year ago, he now has a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent for governor, State Treasurer Phil Angelides.

Last fall, following a resounding defeat of ballot measures Schwarzenegger had backed, including one that would have given him more control over the state budget, he took the unusual step of taking full blame for the drubbing. Later, he said the voters had taught him a lesson.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), California: The message was loud and clear: Don’t come to us about every problem. Go and work with the legislators. And so this year I said, “OK, I’m going to change it a little bit. I’m going to work with the legislators,” meaning with the Republicans and the Democrats.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the University of California at Berkeley, political science teacher and Republican strategist Dan Schnur said he had never seen anything like it.

DAN SCHNUR, Republican Consultant: He said, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” And that’s something that most politicians won’t do. I have never seen a candidate or elected officeholder move so quickly and so decisively back to the political center.

A year ago, he was perceived by most voters as being an archconservative, because he spent the special election talking about hacking budgets and taking on unions. Now that he’s talking about building roads, and building schools, and protecting coastlines, he’s a moderate again.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mark DiCamillo, director of California’s Field Poll, says a turnaround in popularity like this one is rare.

MARK DICAMILLO, Director, Field Poll: We don’t usually see that kind of volatility; usually, if it goes negative, it’s very hard to bring it back.

SPENCER MICHELS: In recent months, Schwarzenegger joined forces with Democratic lawmakers to pass a series of measures that his fellow Republicans mostly opposed, including a bill raising the minimum wage to eight dollars an hour in two years, highest in the nation.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Let us do what is best for the people of California, not what is best for my party or what is best for his party, but what is the best for the people of California.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor pleased Democrats and environmentalists in early September by supporting a bill to curb greenhouse gases, rolling back legal emission amounts to the 1990 levels in order to lessen global warming. His position put him at odds with the Bush administration.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: We are declared that the debate is over, and the science is in, and it’s now time for action.

Political profile

SPENCER MICHELS: Steve Schmidt worked for President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Karl Rove, but he is now Schwarzenegger's campaign manager, and he praised the governor's stand on greenhouse gases.

STEVE SCHMIDT, Schwarzenegger Campaign Manager: It's the right thing for California. He believes it's the right thing for the country. One of his great accomplishments in California, something that people said couldn't be done, that you could both care about the environment, and support policies that were good for the environment, and not hurt the economy at the same time.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor touted as evidence of his nonpartisanship his hiring of Susan Kennedy as chief of staff. She's a Democrat and a lesbian. And while that pleased some Democrats, it added to the anger of some conservatives who think that he is too supportive of gay rights.

RANDY THOMASSON, Campaign for Children and Families: We are telling Governor Schwarzenegger: Do not push sexual indoctrination upon the schoolchildren.

SPENCER MICHELS: Randy Thomasson of the Campaign for Children and Families faults the governor for supporting various gay rights measures.

RANDY THOMASSON: People who believe in basic family values are pretty undecided right now. Moral conservatives, family people, they're going, "Hey, I'm not necessarily in bed with Arnold. In fact, I may be out of the bed, because I didn't ask for this."

RADIO HOST: Twenty-one before 9 o'clock, we are Armstrong and Getty. What do you think of Arnold? What kind of job is he doing? 1-866-333-TALK. Will you vote for him?

Liberal values

SPENCER MICHELS: On California conservative radio, the talk is about whether Schwarzenegger is too liberal.

RADIO CALLER: I wanted to tell you, as a conservative, it's a little hard for me. And I'm still debating whether or not I'm going to vote for him, largely because, if you look at the stuff he's doing, I mean, it's hard to even call him a fiscal conservative.

RADIO HOST: Would you rather be tied to a guy who's exactly who you want who loses or would you rather get somebody in office who's closer, closer to what you want than the alternative?

SPENCER MICHELS: While many conservatives are dismayed with Schwarzenegger's apparent move to the left, eight of 10 Republicans support the governor, while only six of 10 Democrats support Angelides. The governor is getting cooperation from former critics, like legislative leader Fabian Nunez, who as a democrat backs Angelides, but is not shy about praising Schwarzenegger's new stance.

FABIAN NUNEZ (D), Assembly Speaker, California: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did a total turnaround in terms of his political ideology and the way that he governs this state to where now he's embraced the Democratic agenda. And he's pretty damn politically astute, because he's looking at his own survivability. And he has come to the conclusion that the Republican Party isn't going to keep him alive.

The candidates

SPENCER MICHELS: While it may seem that the California election is strictly about Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course it is not. Phil Angelides says he's very much in the race.

One of his main tactics, like that of many Democratic candidates around the country, is to try to tie his opponent to Republican President George Bush.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Let's go out and re-elect President George W. Bush!

TV AD ANNOUNCER: One-hundred and thirty-thousand American troops remain in Iraq under George W. Bush.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: George W. Bush! Let's go out and re-elect President George W. Bush!

TV AD ANNOUNCER: Arnold Schwarzenegger is for George W. Bush. Is he for you?

SPENCER MICHELS: That's an approach that could be effective, argues pollster DiCamillo.

MARK DICAMILLO: Democrats in this state have a very low regard for George Bush. And so, if you can remind voters that one of the reasons why Bush is president today is that Schwarzenegger went to Ohio, and campaigned for him, and moved that state into the Bush column, I think that probably has some effect in shoring up the support of Democrats for Angelides.

But it's still -- Angelides needs to give voters reasons why they should vote for him on his own merits.

SPENCER MICHELS: Angelides tries to do that, while constantly coming back to the ties between the president and the governor.

PHIL ANGELIDES, Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate: People across this country, including California, are tired of the Bush-Schwarzenegger agenda, favoring big corporate special interests at the expense of hardworking families. And I think you're going to see across America and here in California a sea change. And, look, I'm very clearly different than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

SPENCER MICHELS: Angelides says Schwarzenegger's transformation is a charade.

PHIL ANGELIDES: What he's done is, in the last several months, he's tried to fake being a Democrat. Look, at his core, he is a Bush Republican. Here's what he knows is coming: a Democratic wave across this country. And he's going to be swept out with his crony, George Bush.

SPENCER MICHELS: One conservative mantra Schwarzenegger has not abandoned is a pledge of no new taxes, which he is using to attack Angelides.

TV AD ANNOUNCER: Governor Schwarzenegger is moving California's economy forward with no new taxes. Phil Angelides promises $10 billion in new taxes; that would move California's economy backwards.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Angelides' answer to the tax charge, that he would cut taxes for the middle class, is rarely heard. He doesn't have the money in this huge state where most campaigning is done on TV to blanket the airwaves with his message. So, Mark DiCamillo argues, Schwarzenegger's forces have a big advantage.

MARK DICAMILLO: They want to define Angelides before he gets a chance to introduce himself. And so the longer it takes for him to introduce himself to all voters, the greater the opportunity, I think, for the governor to run these negative ads and for them to connect.

SPENCER MICHELS: Angelides depends more on traditional campaign appearances, interviews and volunteer staff, since he doesn't have the star quality of the governor.

Schwarzenegger has done few interviews. He declined to talk to the NewsHour. But nearly every day, he has some media event -- a bill signing or an awards ceremony -- where the former movie star invariably draws a slew of TV cameras.

Despite the governor's lead, which some polls show expanding, the Schwarzenegger forces are not letting up, saying they are running as if they were 10 points behind. Although Angelides wanted 10 debates, the candidates are now scheduled to debate just once, on Saturday night, October 7th, during the baseball playoffs.