Mon, Nov 07, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Unpopular Arnie facing special election ordeal


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's name will not appear on the special election ballot on Tuesday, when California voters go to the polls to consider initiatives he says are crucial to reshape state government.

But the special election he called is as much a referendum on the governor himself as it is about the "year of reform" agenda he is asking voters to support. Its outcome is likely to set the stage for the next chapter of his unconventional political career.

If Schwarzenegger's early days in office were characterized by his celebrity status and bipartisan governing style, the past year has been defined by his launch of this divisive special election and the fallout from that decision.

A recent poll found that just 36 percent of voters want to see Schwarzenegger re-elected next year, with 55 percent opposed.

Schwarzenegger was elected as a moderate Republican in a Democratic state, but veered to the right to promote his reform initiatives, which target Democratic lawmakers and public-sector unions. He has paid a price for that gamble, losing support from large numbers of Democrats and independents, who constitute more than 60 percent of the California electorate.

Whatever the outcome, political experts said the governor must work to repair the damage to his image brought on by the special election, which will cost the state US$52 million to US$55 million. Whether he can do so will determine his ability to govern next year and the strength of his reelection bid.

"If all the initiatives go down, partisan Democrats will say `We beat him today, now let's go beat him next year," said political analyst Allan Hoffenblum.

But Hoffenblum, who is a former Republican campaign consultant, said Schwarzenegger can reclaim some of his lost stature and position himself for re-election if he absorbs some important lessons.

"He needs to reconnect with soft Democrats and independent voters, keep the rhetoric and jokes down, and come up with some good ideas," Hoffenblum said.

Schwarzenegger already appears anxious to move in that direction, especially as polls show none of his four initiatives with majority support. He wants to reform teacher tenure laws, limit state spending, change the way legislative districts are drawn and reduce the ability of public employee unions to raise money for political campaigns.

Voters also will decide on Tuesday between two competing initiatives aimed at reducing the cost of prescription drugs; a constitutional amendment requiring doctors to notify the parents or guardians of underage girls seeking abortions; and an initiative on whether to reregulate the state's electric utilities.

In recent days, Schwarzenegger has talked about plans to tackle several of the state's major problems next year, including traffic congestion, children without health insurance and underperforming schools -- the kind of issues critics complain his ballot measures did little to address.

In an interview last week, Schwarzenegger said he planned to work closely with legislative leaders despite their differences over the special election.

"No matter what the outcome of the election, we have to talk," Schwarzenegger said. "This place is ready to boom. It could be another Gold Rush here. So let's start putting a program together for infrastructure that's really big thinking -- like landing a man on the moon kind of vision. Big."

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