Bush's shadow looms over governors

Battered Schwarzenegger tries to hold on in California in one of 36 contests this year

March 27, 2006|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN REPORTER

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's governor says he's an "Arnold Republican," not a "Bush Republican." But in many ways, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush are in the same boat, with one exception: Schwarzenegger is running for re-election this year.

Largely as a result of his own mistakes, Schwarzenegger's political standing has fallen as low as the president's. His competence has been called into question, and while the governor isn't grappling with foreign policy failures, his agenda has stalled because of resistance from fellow Republicans, just as Bush's has.

"I've thought a lot about the last year and the mistakes I made and the lessons I've learned," Schwarzenegger said in a mea culpa speech that callers to his campaign headquarters hear when they're put on hold. "I have absorbed my defeat, and I have learned my lesson."

Whether Californians want to give him another chance is a question that will be answered this year in the nation's most populous state, where Schwarzenegger stands a good chance of winning, despite his difficulties.

The California contest is the marquee event of a busy election year, in which 36 states, including Maryland, are choosing governors. Republicans are defending 22 governorships. Democrats hold the office in 14 states with elections this fall.

The results could defy stereotypes. In the blue states of New England -- Democratic strongholds in presidential elections -- Republican governors are favored to gain re-election in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

In the red-state Great Plains, Southwest and Rocky Mountain West, which often go Republican in presidential years by lopsided margins, Democratic incumbents are expected to win new terms in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Overall, Democrats are favored to make gains nationally, which could give that party a majority of governors' chairs. More important than overall numbers, however, will be which party controls such key states as Ohio and Florida. Governors could be influential in the '08 presidential election and in the redistricting that follows the 2010 census.

"Do governors matter in presidential elections? Yes, because we're a very, very narrowly divided country, and so, in politics, inches matter," said Philip Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Conversely, the president may matter in '06 gubernatorial contests, though his name won't be on the ballot.

"This may be a year nationally that favors Democrats because of the attitudes of the public toward Bush and the war," said Mark DiCamillo, who directs the Field organization's nonpartisan polling in California.

Schwarzenegger, who campaigned for Bush's re-election in 2004, has distanced himself from the president, avoiding him on his most recent visits to the state. Bush never carried California, and he is deeply unpopular among the swing Democrats and independents that the governor hopes to win back.

The Democrats are trying to tie Schwarzenegger to Bush, and even some in the governor's inner circle wonder privately whether an unpopular war half a world away is a major factor in their state's sour mood.

"It just feeds an overall sense that things are going wrong and that our leaders don't have a clue about how to make them better," said Paul Maslin, a pollster for state Treasurer Phil Angelides, one of the Democrats running to unseat Schwarzenegger.

Californians dote on their image as trendsetters, but if the state's political climate is influenced by outside events this November, it wouldn't be the first time.

When midterm elections produce major upheavals around the country, "the wind blows east to west, and the mood in Washington affects the mood in California," said Bill Whalen of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Many of the issues likely to play out in California's campaign will be repeated in other states as well: the rising cost of higher education, illegal immigration, domestic security and energy independence. Another issue that has emerged elsewhere -- limiting government's power to seize private property -- might become a vehicle for Schwarzenegger to rally conservative support, some Republicans predict.

But with a celebrity governor seeking his first full term, the race here will primarily be a personality contest. As flexible as Bush is intransigent, the governor has undergone a political makeover after a disastrous 2005, when state voters rejected ballot initiatives that Schwarzenegger championed and his poll numbers plummeted. Unlike Bush, who has resisted calls to shake up his White House staff, Schwarzenegger overhauled his team for the re-election run -- by importing Bush aides and Republican operatives from Washington. They include Matthew Dowd, a top Bush re-election strategist, and campaign manager Steve Schmidt, formerly a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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