No Longer an Action Hero, but a Potent Force

Article excerpt

He was supposed to be the new American political idol, an outside- the-broken-system reformer crying "Hasta la vista, baby" to politics as usual.

Riding the voter anger of California's zany 2003 recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger had just the right combination of qualities to get voters to take a fresh look at the Republican Party: celebrity name recognition, charisma, wealth, and a wife of political nobility.

Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and an all-around nice guy, he was expected not just to help rebuild the GOP in the state he calls "Kawl-ee-fornia" but also to soften criticism of the party nationwide - perhaps even to pull California back into contention for George W. Bush in the presidential race.

One year later, as he steps onto the prime-time podium of the Republican National Convention, a more complex portrait has been coming into view. Long lampooned by late-night comedians, the governor is now lauded even by critics as an intelligent detail man. His efforts to bridge partisan gaps have scored major successes, yet chinks have begun to appear in the armor that once seemed invincible.

Most pertinent to Tuesday night's appearance, Mr. Schwarzenegger hasn't put California in play for President Bush (polls show the state safely in the Democratic camp). And while the GOP clearly wants to capitalize on his potential to broaden the party's appeal, his current role in the party nationally is a somewhat awkward one.

"Schwarzenegger always provides a kind of tension for the national Republican party," says Elizabeth Garrett, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Like Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, who are considered party mavericks with appeal beyond the traditional party base, Schwarzenegger has the potential to attract a wide swath of voters, she says. "But they are always concerned about alienating conservative elements of the party should Arnold speak about issues such as gay marriage or abortion."

Because of that tension, the Bush-Schwarzenegger relationship has been cordial, but largely arm's length. Bush did not endorse Schwarzenegger during the effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis (D) by recall vote, and the couple's public meetings have not brought them any closer, analysts say. …