Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Governor is losing

GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Governor Revs Up Reform Sales Pitch, But Maybe Too Late
George Skelton
Capitol Journal

October 27, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally is back on track, trying to pull his "reform" initiatives to victory in the Nov. 8 special election. But his long derailment has cost him dearly.

A new poll to be released Friday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California is expected to show that Schwarzenegger's ballot propositions have made no appreciable gains in recent weeks, despite heavy TV advertising by the governor.

None is drawing support from a majority of likely voters.

And the fate of one measure, the anti-union Proposition 75, now seems a tossup after having been favored by a 25-point margin only two months ago.

Meanwhile, a large majority of voters continues to disapprove of Schwarzenegger's job performance and thinks California is headed in the wrong direction.

Obviously, the governor — despite all his communication skills — has not been selling himself or his "reforms."

And one reason, I suspect, is that he hasn't been engaged in the type of marketing he finally began Monday night — taking his case directly to ordinary voters.

Most of Schwarzenegger's selling this year, except for marginally effective TV ads, has been to loyal customers: Republican audiences and conservative talk-show listeners. He has posed for staged photo-ops and sat with doting radio hosts. But those sales already had been made two years ago, when he ran for governor.

Schwarzenegger's strategy has been to solidify his GOP base and generate a big conservative voter turnout. Fine.

But until this week in his personal campaigning, Schwarzenegger has practically ignored Democrats and independents — and, most importantly, the non-ideologue swing voters, who actually pick and choose carefully when deciding on candidates and propositions. They're usually about one-third of the electorate.

Talk to virtually any Schwarzenegger rooter outside his strategy team and you'll hear a common complaint: that he has failed to make a strong case to non-ideologues for his initiatives, especially the centerpiece Proposition 76, which would impose a new state spending limit and reduce school funding guarantees.

Monday night in Walnut Creek, an upscale suburb on the east side of San Francisco Bay, Schwarzenegger participated in a 40-minute, televised public forum sponsored by a newspaper and a TV station, answering unscripted questions from an independently selected cross section of voters.

His strategists' previous MO was to choreograph "town hall" meetings and fill them with invited Republicans and business supporters.

The difference couldn't have been more stark. In Walnut Creek, Schwarzenegger looked alive, exhibiting wit, thoughtful responses and passion. He seemed focused, on his toes. By contrast, in canned campaign appearances before idolizing fans, he has sounded bored and trite.

He'll be doing perhaps half a dozen of these forums around California before election day.

But the governor refuses to allow any adversaries on stage with him. On Monday, his two opponents — Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Rose Ann DeMoro, director of the California Nurses Assn. — were forced to appear separately from the governor for 40 minutes.

That seems a Schwarzenegger mistake. No California Democrat or union leader can match him as a communicator.

As Republican consultant Dan Schnur observes: "That was the best night Schwarzenegger has had in months. He was at his best. The only thing that could have made it better is if he and Perata had gone toe to toe.

"The contrast between Schwarzenegger, 'the reformer,' and Perata, the politician, would have been overwhelming."

Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director, says strategists won't allow the enemy to share the stage with the governor because "there's no one of comparable stature" and whoever was up there "would have nothing to lose by taking cheap shots."

But cheap shots often miss and, anyway, Schwarzenegger is skilled enough to deflect them. After all, the highlight of his 2003 election campaign was a televised debate with cheap-shoting opponents.

And why hasn't the governor participated previously in a Walnut Creek-style forum? No TV stations offered any, Stutzman says, or "we would have done some." There's interest now because the election is close, he explains.

But that seems a cop-out. There are Rotary and Lions clubs — and big civic groups — all over California eager to hear from the governor and pepper him politely with questions. Local TV would jump at the coverage.

I suspect this governor — like Gray Davis before him — avoids such appearances for the same reason he rarely holds news conferences: It requires some preparation and risk. And for his staff, extra work.

Meanwhile, if any of Schwarzenegger's ballot measures can be salvaged, it'll be up to him.

"He's the only one who can sell his program," says political analyst Tony Quinn, a Republican. "He put these things on the ballot. He called the election.

"This election was about 'Arnold can sell anything.' That was not a bad idea last January."

Then the reform express got derailed.

A bigger problem even than the derailment, however, has been the destination: a special election that voters never wanted and will cost state taxpayers $55 million. That's a hard ticket to sell.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.
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