Schwarzenegger Fights Back Ahead of Special Election

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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is blitzing the state's airwaves with a major ad campaign for initiatives he's backing in next month's special election. Schwarzenegger says he's countering a multi-million dollar attack by opponents. But the governor's falling approval rating is also on the line.


`From "Terminator" to underdog'--that's what California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he's become ahead of next month's special statewide election. Schwarzenegger is not on the ballot himself, but he has taken on California's teachers, nurses and public employees with a series of ballot measures that would take power from their unions. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, after weeks of being hammered by attack ads, Schwarzenegger is punching back.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Less than a month to go before California's special election and Governor Schwarzenegger is suddenly all over the airwaves. For months, he's been taking a bashing from unions portraying him as a power-hungry politician out to get the working people. But this week, Schwarzenegger came out swinging, like in this TV ad running statewide.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): The big government labor unions like Sacramento just the way it is. I'm out to change the system, so I'm not very popular with them. So when you see the attack ads, remember where they're coming from. Help me change Sacramento so we can rebuild California.

KAHN: To do that, the governor is urging voters to pass initiatives that would, among other things, lengthen teachers' probationary period and force public unions to poll the rank-and-file before spending on political campaigns. During a blitz of talk radio yesterday, Schwarzenegger stressed that he's not out to get nurses or firefighters; it's their union bosses he's after.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: Because they want to hold on to the status quo. They want us to just continue on with a broken system. And what we have to do is we have to make government go back to what it was originally meant for, which is to serve the people.

KAHN: Unions have raised more than $80 million; Schwarzenegger's spending has topped $30 million. But the governor's critics say his claim of being an underdog is ridiculous.

Ms. ROBIN SWANSON (Spokeswoman, Alliance for a Better California): The governor has raised more special interest money than any governor in history.

KAHN: Robin Swanson is the spokeswoman for the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition of groups fighting the governor's special election initiatives.

Ms. SWANSON: The governor has called this special election. He's wasting, depending on which day you ask the secretary of State, somewhere between 45 million and $80 million of taxpayer money on an election that Californians have said that they don't want on issues that we don't support.

KAHN: Strategists on all sides say the governor has an uphill battle. During the 2003 recall election, he was the outsider, extremely popular for his promises not to take special interest money. But Bruce Cain of UC-Berkeley says Schwarzenegger has a hard sell this time around, given his record fund-raising.

Mr. BRUCE CAIN (University of California at Berkeley): The argument made more sense in 2003 than it does right now, and we've spent a lot of time in the state of California trying to parse what he means by the words `special interests' because when Arnold says `special interests,' he apparently doesn't mean businesses, he doesn't mean real estate developers, he doesn't mean wealthy individuals. And so we really don't know whether this appeal is going to work.

KAHN: But Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political analyst, says Schwarzenegger has to try and take the higher ground and keep the discourse focused on reforms.

Mr. ALLAN HOFFENBLUM (Republican Political Analyst): I don't know whether he's going to be able to do that in the next, you know, 27 or 28 days. But he's certainly out there trying.

KAHN: Polls show most of the initials have failed to catch on with the electorate, but that hasn't slowed down the spending by campaigns for and against. At this rate, next month's special election will go down as one of the most expensive ever in California. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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