STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, it's been a tough year for California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He watched what he called a reform agenda go up in flames in a special election that he called. And Schwarzenegger's poll numbers fell sharply. Now the governor is trying to remind voters why they once liked him so much. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Arnold Schwarzenegger may not have seen it at the time, but he planted the seeds of this very tough year back in January. His popularity ratings then were sky high, and at his State of the State speech, he told lawmakers, particularly the majority Democrats, they better get with the program--his program--to reconfigure the state's political landscape.

(Soundbite of 2005 State of the State speech)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): If we here in this chamber do not work together to reform the government, the people will rise up and reform it themselves. And you know something? I will join them and I will fight by their side.

Assemblywoman KAREN BASS (Democratic Majority Whip): It was shocking to see the governor essentially declare war on the Legislature.

JAFFE: Assemblywoman Karen Bass, the Democratic majority whip, heard Schwarzenegger demand changes in education spending, teachers' pay, public employees' pensions and the lawmakers' districts are drawn.

Assemblywoman BASS: I just wondered why on Earth anyone would take on so many battles at one time. It polarized the year from the very beginning.

JAFFE: Not just Democrats were alarmed by the governor's words. Public employee unions felt his agenda targeted their interests directly. They banded together and raised more than $100 million to fight him, and their attack ads went on the air months before the governor even called the special election.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Governor, I voted for you because I trusted what you said.

Unidentified Man #2: A lot of people did.

Unidentified Man #3: But you're just one broken promise after another.

JAFFE: Democratic consultant Gail Kaufman ran the union campaign.

Ms. GAIL KAUFMAN (Democratic Consultant): When he took on the nurses, the teachers and the firefighters, he took on the very people that voters say do the work of government that is so important. And by his continual denigrating them, he showed a lack of understanding about day-to-day people that I think hurt him dramatically.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger made it easy for his opponents to portray him as a right-wing Republican. He praised the controversial volunteer border patrol known as the Minutemen. He addressed the National GOP convention and campaigned for President Bush's re-election in the crucial state of Ohio. But in the blue state of California, his poll numbers dropped into the 30s. Political consultant Ray McNally, a Republican who opposed the special election, says Schwarzenegger now needs to regain the trust he's blown.

Mr. RAY McNALLY (Political Consultant): Because ultimately, in politics, as sleazy as this business is, at the end of the day, all you have is your word. And at least last year, he showed that his word wasn't worth much.

JAFFE: So Schwarzenegger's been making moves to show that he's the centrist bipartisan guy he looked like when he campaigned for his job. The most controversial: He appointed lifelong Democratic activist Susan Kennedy as his new chief of staff.

Senator DICK ACKERMAN (Republican, California): I think it was a mistake, and I told the governor that and continue to tell him that, but that's already--it's sort of water under the bridge.

JAFFE: Dick Ackerman is the leader of California Senate Republicans.

Sen. ACKERMAN: I think she'll do a good job for the governor, but I think it sent the wrong message to the Republican base.

JAFFE: The Republican base also many not like Schwarzenegger's agenda for the coming year nearly as much as Democrats. In his State of the State speech next week, he'll call for a big public works program to improve California's highways and ports. An expansion of health care for poor children may also be on his list. Again, Republican consultant Ray McNally.

Mr. McNALLY: The governor's like a car careening down a mountainside. You know, this last year, he veered far to the right, and now he seems to be veering far to the left. And what you have is a governor that, in the eyes of a lot of the voters, is not very consistent.

JAFFE: Nonsense, says Schwarzenegger's communications director, Rob Stutzman.

Mr. ROB STUTZMAN (Schwarzenegger's Communications Director): Well, I actually don't quite accept the premise that he somehow moved to the right last year. He's always been centrist. He's had a lot of opponents say that he had moved to the right, and they've tried to demonize him that way, but it's just not accurate.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger runs for re-election next year. He won last time in part because everyone knew who he was. After these past couple of years in office, voters may not be so sure. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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