Schwarzenegger's Political Capital Hangs in Balance

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political future may rest with the outcome of next week's special election in California. The governor isn't on the ballot, but his political agenda is. And polls show most voters don't favor the initiatives Schwarzenegger supports.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't on the ballot next Tuesday, but his political future may be. Schwarzenegger called a special election to pass what he calls his reform agenda, but the governor's sagging popularity could be dragging those measures down, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

The way Arnold Schwarzenegger sees it this special election is just an extension of the recall that put him in the governor's office two years ago. That's the pitch he made to the crowd at a shopping mall in the Southern California neighborhood known as Little Saigon.

(Soundbite of mall speech)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): You recall the governor but not the broken system, and this is why we need this special election because in this special election you have a chance to go out and vote and to recall the broken system once and for all...

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger said California's dysfunctional political system would be transformed by his package of initiatives.

(Soundbite of mall speech)

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: Can I hear it from you? Yes on 74, yes on 75, yes on 76, yes on 77...

JAFFE: These initiatives don't deal with what you'd call hot-button issues. Prop 74, for example, would make school teachers wait longer to get tenure. Prop 75 would force public employee unions to get written permission before spending members' dues on politics. The other measures limit state spending, give the governor more power to make budget cuts and transfer the job of drawing legislative districts from state lawmakers to a panel of retired judges. The people who have cared about this the most are the public employee unions and they hate it.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Governor, I voted for you because I trusted what you said. A lot of people did.

Unidentified Man #2: But you're just one broken promise after another.

JAFFE: The speakers in this ad are uniformed cops.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #3: But now you're attacking teachers and you want to cut funding for cops and schools.

Unidentified Man #4: A big disappointment.

Unidentified Man #5: You're not the governor we thought you'd be.

JAFFE: Similar spots feature teachers, nurses and firefighters. Under a multimillion-dollar onslaught of these commercials, Schwarzenegger's popularity rating has dropped from an astronomical 69 percent to less than 40. The latest polls show that he's dragging down his own initiatives. Three of the four look like losers, the one on teacher tenure is still close, and most voters say they don't like the whole idea of the special election in the first place. The governor's still campaigning hard, however, and Republican political analyst Dan Schnur thinks there is still some hope.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Republican Political Analyst): The best thing that the governor can do at this point is probably to engage in some political triage. Trying to explain four different ballot measures is nigh on impossible. If he were to decide that he was going to focus all of his time and energy into passing just a couple of them, I think, after election day Schwarzenegger could legitimately point to those as the first steps toward the type of reform he wanted.

JAFFE: But Democratic consultant Darry Sragow thinks the governor's options are more limited.

Mr. DARRY SRAGOW (Democratic Consultant): Well, I never underestimate the power of prayer. I mean, he is very unpopular. That's not going to change in the next several days. He has been matched and actually outmatched when it comes to raising money. You know, I don't know what he can do other than have an enormous number of Democrats not show up and vote.

JAFFE: It's not known if the governor is praying, but he has been sounding sort of mea culpa in his most recent TV spot.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: Two years ago you elected me to change Sacramento and to put California back on track. I've had a lot to learn, and sometimes I learned the hard way. But my heart is in this, and I want to do right by you.

JAFFE: But if the polls hold true on election day, the question becomes what happens to Schwarzenegger's political career beginning Wednesday, November 9th. Again, Democrat Darry Sragow.

Mr. SRAGOW: If the governor loses all of these, it's pretty humiliating and certainly will confirm to the groups who've taken him on and to the Democrats that they really don't have to pay a lot of attention to him.

JAFFE: That won't necessarily ruin Schwarzenegger's chances for re-election next year, says Sragow, and Republican consultant Dan Schnur agrees.

Mr. SCHNUR: When you ask voters whether they think a politician should be re-elected, they tend to think in terms of the ideal alternative. And 38 percent of the voters say that they would like to re-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger; the rest would probably not vote for him against Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt.

JAFFE: But Schwarzenegger won't be running against them, and his opponent will have his own case to make, his own set of enemies to combat and, like most people on the planet, be a lot less famous than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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