Schwarzenegger dips brawny toe in politics

California: In what could be an audition for a bid for state office, the muscle man campaigns for a kids' program.

October 04, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COSTA MESA, Calif. - Arnold Schwarzenegger is handshaking his way, campaign-style, through a mob of admirers at a Southern California mall. From somewhere in the back of the crowd, a man yells out, "Arnold for president!"

Well, no, not exactly. That would be getting ahead of the story.

Schwarzenegger is dipping his big toe into politics this election season. But where he'll end up isn't scripted yet.

In what is widely seen as an audition for a future statewide race, one of Hollywood's biggest stars is aggressively promoting a California measure that would expand state funding for programs that keep kids off the streets after school.

He's plugging the Nov. 5 ballot initiative through personal appearances and a slick TV ad campaign, financed with more than $1 million of his own money, that identifies him as its author.

"I've had the greatest time with this, and this is not going to be the end of me reaching out and trying to help people," Schwarzenegger said in an interview. A future try for high office - he seriously considered running for governor this year - is "an option," he added.

The barrel-chested actor, active in Republican circles for years, is being talked about as a Senate candidate in 2004 or, more conceivably, a candidate for governor in 2006.

Not long ago, his strategists, who include most of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign team, polled voters on Schwarzenegger's potential as a write-in candidate next month (the idea never went anywhere).

When his name surfaced as a possible candidate last year, the chief strategist for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis faxed political reporters a number of unflattering, tabloid-style articles about the entertainer.

Actor bowed out

Schwarzenegger opted not to run, pleading business and personal obligations. At the same time, he angrily denounced the published reports - which claimed he had a history of improper behavior toward women and that his marriage to NBC newswoman Maria Shriver was in trouble - as "trash" and "stupid accusations."

His reaction led to speculation that the movie tough guy might be too tender for the rough and tumble of a campaign. He dismisses it with a Trumanesque line and insists he's used to absorbing attacks.

"I would say if you can't take the heat, you have to get out of the kitchen," he said. Politics "is a dirty business, so you have to be thick-skinned. But I think I got a little used to this when I read the reviews of my movies. Ha, ha, ha."

Once the highest-paid film actor in the world, he would be required as a candidate to disclose his extensive financial holdings. If he does subject himself to campaign scrutiny, his candidacy could have obvious advantages for this state's long-suffering Republican Party, which has dwindling hopes of unseating Davis next month.

The Austrian-born actor, who became a U.S. citizen in 1983, enjoys a degree of celebrity no opponent could match. The public knows him by his first name, and he has worked to identify himself with issues - kids and education - that top the voters' agenda.

His bipartisan private life might well reinforce any crossover political appeal. By marriage, he's part of the Democratic Party's first family, the Kennedys. His father-in-law, Sargent Shriver of Potomac, Montgomery County, who according to Schwarzenegger supports "everything I do," was the Democrats' vice presidential candidate three decades ago.

Above the feuding

As an outsider, he's positioning himself above the partisan feuding that turns voters off. With a politician's eye toward making everyone happy, he says he brought Republicans and Democrats together in drafting his initiative.

"Everyone made their little changes, which had no impact on the initiative, but it made them feel like they had a hand in it," he said.

His moderate social views (he favors abortion rights, gun control and adoption by gays) could pose a problem in a Republican primary. But he's already showing considerable savvy as he counters the objections of conservative Republicans, who, polls show, are less supportive of his initiative than Democrats.

In TV ads and speeches, he says his after-school plan won't require new taxes. It would actually save taxpayers money, he claims, by reducing crime, while lowering the number of dropouts and raising test scores.

Opposition to the measure, known as Proposition 49, has come mainly from good-government groups and some labor unions, which say it would force the state to divert up to $550 million from other programs. They say that if Schwarzenegger succeeds, other powerful figures will try to get voters to approve guaranteed funding for their pet projects, putting further pressure on a state government that projects a budget gap of more than $10 billion next year.

But opponents haven't raised money to advertise against the ballot measure, and polls suggest it is likely to win approval.

Middle of the road

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