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Schwarzenegger Needs More Than GOP Can Give

California's Governor open steps in the campaign for this November ballot

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opening steps in the campaign for his November ballot measures illustrate the fragile balance he must strike to strengthen his Republican support while rebuilding his image as a centrist.

Schwarzenegger’s challenge was on clear display over the weekend. On Saturday in Orange County, he roused a state Republican convention crowd with tough talk on blocking higher taxes, battling “union bosses” in Sacramento and stopping illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.

On Sunday in South Los Angeles, the Republican governor adjusted his message. Speaking to parishioners at a black church, he played up his wife’s Kennedy family pedigree, government aid to fight poverty and the struggle for “equal education.”

In a state where barely one in three voters is a registered Republican, Schwarzenegger has no choice but to reach beyond his party base.

But with the Nov. 8 special election just over seven weeks away, he must find a way to do that without turning off conservatives, his only strong bloc of support after months of declining popularity. This raises the question: How much of a Republican can Schwarzenegger afford to be?

The governor “desperately needs support beyond his own party” to win passage of four measures he is backing on the November ballot, said Mark Baldassare, research director at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“He was able to do it two years ago in the recall election, and that’s what he’s trying to do again,” Baldassare said.

The task is far more difficult for a sitting governor.

In the recall, candidates ran with no party labels. Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood fame made him an instant favorite. With no record as an elected official, he was easily able to define himself as a centrist in sync with mainstream California, a fiscal conservative with moderate-to-liberal views on such social issues as abortion, guns and gay rights.

Soon after the election, Schwarzenegger solidified his capture of the political center by leading a bipartisan campaign for twin measures on the March 2004 ballot to clean up the state’s budget mess. Both won overwhelming voter approval.

But since then, the governor has aligned himself more closely with his party. Most visibly, he championed the reelection of President Bush, a highly unpopular figure in California, in a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in New York. He also campaigned for Bush in Ohio.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has grown increasingly combative toward Democrats who control the Legislature and even more so toward their main benefactor, organized labor.

The union counterattack, a relentless blast of television ads against the governor, has undercut Schwarzenegger’s popularity. Most damaging is his loss of support among the moderate Democrats and independents who often sway statewide elections.

Now, with the fall initiative campaign opening, the Legislature has passed bills that push Schwarzenegger to choose between consolidating his Republican base and widening his appeal. In each case, analysts say, he has opted for sustaining Republican support. Specifically, he has indicated that he would veto bills that would raise the minimum wage, legalize same-sex marriage and grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.