Can Schwarzenegger's 2006 Comeback Survive?

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) started the year low in the polls, with political enemies circling. But by November, he was pals with some key Democratic leaders and scored a stunning landslide re-election victory. It was a comeback year that leads many to wonder what he will do in 2007.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ended the year with a misstep, literally. He fell while on skis in Idaho and broke his leg. Otherwise, it's been a stunning comeback year for Schwarzenegger.

As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, he went from being dismissed and despised to getting reelected by a landslide.

INA JAFFE: Maybe love means never having to say you're sorry. But in politics, it seems to work, or at least it did for Arnold Schwarzenegger. After all of his ballot initiatives were trounced in a special election he called, he admitted he'd been wrong.

He said he was sorry. In fact, he said it a couple of times, including to the entire state legislature that assembled last January for his State of the State Address.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): I didn't hear the majority of Californians when they were telling me they didn't like the special election. I barreled ahead anyway when I should have listened. So to my fellow Californians I say, message received.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: When it comes to apologies, Schwarzenegger has one big thing going for him.

Professor BARBARA O'CONNOR (Communication Studies, Cal State Sacramento): People actually like him.

JAFFE: Says Barbara O'Connor, a political analyst at Cal State Sacramento.

Prof. O'CONNOR: They feel they know him. They've watched him in movies. They grew up with him. They are more willing to take a new look when he says I'm sorry. He said I'm sorry a couple of times. They seem to forgive him.

JAFFE: But that wouldn't have matter says O'Connor if he hasn't actually gotten things done over the past year. And he actually did quite a lot, hand in hand with the Democrats who controlled the legislature, the ones he'd called girly men and spending addicts.

Mr. FABIAN NUNEZ (Speaker, California State Assembly): The governor decided that it was time to get on the bus.

JAFFE: Fabian Nunez is the speaker of the State Assembly.

Mr. NUNEZ: And he looked at the democratic agenda and saw the value in issues that we've been advocating for for the last six or seven years, among them climate change, minimum wage, prescription drugs. And so then he embraced democratic issues.

JAFFE: Partnership with the Democrats didn't only help Schwarzenegger, says Barbara O'Connor, it left his democratic opponent in the governor's race, Phil Angelides, with virtually nothing to campaign on.

Prof. O'CONNOR: Because they were delivering a policy a day, which took the planks out from under his candidacy.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger no longer has to worry about reelection, but he continues to tout the virtues of bi-partisanship as the way to solve problems. At a recent Capitol news conference, he said in his next term he wants to find a way to provide healthcare for the 6.5 million Californians with no insurance.

Governor SCHWARZENEGGER: There's a bi-partisan mood in this building, and I see great hope that, because everyone wants to do it - I talked to all the leaders; they all are interested to cover everybody.

JAFFE: Some Schwarzenegger watchers think the biggest obstacle to healthcare reform won't be Republicans or Democrats but the governor's own prodigious fundraising. Since taking office three years ago, he's raised more than $100 million.

Jamie Court is the president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Mr. JAMIE COURT (President, Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights): The question is whether this governor has got the cojones to go stand up to the insurers and the drug companies that have given him millions in political contributions.

JAFFE: If Schwarzenegger needs a push, he'll likely get it from the Democrats who control the legislature. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez would be happy if next year is just like this last one.

Mr. NUNEZ: I had the most successful legislative year of my life. I mean one needs to look no further than the success that we had this year to say the smart thing to do is to continue down the same path.

JAFFE: Like many of us, California's elected leaders are starting the New Year with the best of intentions.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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