Los Angeles

HIS WIFE IS A KENNEDY. His best friends are Democrats. He supports abortion and is ambivalent about gay marriage. Yet this Tuesday night, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of a state President Bush has no hope of winning, is delivering a primetime speech to the Republican National Convention in New York.

Arguably the Republican party's most charismatic leader, Schwarzenegger will be all over New York at the start of the convention. After Tuesday's speech, he'll head to the Boat House in Central Park where he's the guest of honor at a lavish gala hosted by the film and recording industries. The following day, it's off to a school in Harlem for an afternoon photo op. On Thursday, he'll attend a red carpet luncheon for the California delegation at Planet Hollywood. But you won't see Arnold standing beside the California standard during the roll call of the states. Although corporate contributors are underwriting the cost of his visit to the tune of $350,000, he's not even a delegate to the convention. Neither will he appear in the company of George Bush, Dick Cheney, or any other senior administration official. And by the time the president accepts the nomination Thursday night, Schwarzenegger should be back in California watching the balloon drop on TV.

The governor's office in Sacramento initially said Schwarzenegger is departing early because he has to decide the fate of more than 1,000 bills passed in the final hours of the legislative session. But journalists pointed out that the governor has 30 days to process pending legislation. His aides then said the reason he's not staying longer is that a bipartisan governor like Arnold doesn't need to concern himself with frivolous political pomp. A simpler explanation may be that Schwarzenegger knows the final day of the convention belongs to George Bush and sees no reason to linger once the spotlight shifts.

Everybody in California seems to love Arnold. "He's a PR genius with great instincts who can work a crowd like no politician I've ever seen before," says former governor Pete Wilson. "For Californians, Arnold is a national figure who ranks alongside Colin Powell, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani," maintains state GOP chairman Duf Sundheim. State senator Tom McClintock, the leading Republican candidate to replace Gov. Gray Davis in last year's recall election until Schwarzenegger entered the race, grudgingly admits, "Arnold's political skills and natural leadership abilities are the best of any governor I've ever worked with." Even the Los Angeles Times--which opposed the recall, made Hollywood philandering a campaign issue, and continues to criticize his eccentricities--conceded in a recent editorial that "somehow the cloak of failure doesn't fit him."

Some of Schwarzenegger's most vocal supporters, however, privately worry that the self-proclaimed "action governor" is too quick to compromise, has done little to eliminate the legislative gridlock that prompted the controversial recall, and has failed to move rapidly to restore fiscal balance to the state budget.

If criticism is muted, it's because Californians no longer sell Arnold short. In less than a year in office, he has won voter approval for $15 billion in bonds that saved the state from financial ruin, convinced several Indian tribes to give the state a larger percentage of their gambling revenues, pushed legislation that lowered the cost of workers' compensation, and initiated a major study on ways to make state government more efficient.

The biggest change may be that California for the first time in memory has a governor with a mesmerizing personality with whom people identify. Operating out of a canvas smoking tent erected on a patio outside his Capitol office, Schwarzenegger welcomes visitors with a cigar and an invitation to swing the 3-foot sword he used in Conan the Barbarian. The tent is a small corner of Hollywood transplanted to the Sacramento Valley. Show business friends like Danny DeVito and Rob Lowe stop by often and are generous with advice regarding staff-prepared speeches that Schwarzenegger continues to call "scripts." According to various accounts, it's also a hangout for weight-lifting buddies who occasionally join the governor in gulping handfuls of nutritional supplements that include flax seed oil, B-12 vitamins, and Ester-C.

Incessant fundraising was a major factor contributing to the demise of Gray Davis. During the campaign, Schwarzenegger promised he would never cater to special interests, if only because he was a millionaire not dependent on political donations. He did use his own money, much of it coming from personal bank loans he intended to have political contributors repay after the election. But a Sacramento judge ruled the scheme illegal. After that, Schwarzenegger was aggressively looking for contributions. So far this year his fundraising efforts have netted an average of $2 million a month, about $400,000 more than the $1.6 million Gray Davis averaged during his five years in office.

Schwarzenegger's quest for cash has attracted relatively little criticism, perhaps because much of it goes for perks for political allies. About $450,000 has been spent this year on travel for consultants and political aides, some of whom are rewarded with trips on the executive jet leased by his Santa Monica production company. He paid campaign consultants $1.5 million, spent $437,000 on attorneys and accountants, and gave pollsters more than $300,000. Along with the carrots comes the occasional stick. Recently, he funded a separate political corporation with $240,000 to pay for political rallies in districts where uncooperative legislators need to be shown who's boss.

Schwarzenegger is not shy when it comes to taking credit for political accomplishments. In June he celebrated a deal with five Indian tribes that should produce $1.5 billion in additional state revenues. Beneath an enormous banner reading "Promises Made; Promises Kept" in a ceremony that could have been directed by Howard Hawks, Schwarzenegger and the Indian chiefs exchanged gifts and did everything but smoke a peace pipe. Such high production values don't come cheap. Schwarzenegger paid vendors like San Francisco's Hartmann Studios more than $600,000 this year to choreograph his public appearances.

But not all of the governor's achievements are worth celebrating. Wearing a dark gray suit, lime-green tie, and cowboy boots embroidered with the governor's official seal, Schwarzenegger praised California's $105 billion state budget at a festive signing earlier this month. "This is a fair and responsible budget," he said, smiling. "It is balanced and it does not raise taxes." Noticeably absent from the ceremony were most of the state's 46 Republican legislators, more than a third of whom refused to vote for the document.

In fact, the budget is balanced only because of massive borrowing, accounting tricks, and false revenue assumptions. State spending has actually increased and so dramatically that deficits of up to $10 billion are projected for each of the next two years. "You can be a popular governor or an effective governor," says Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters. "Unfortunately, Arnold loves to be loved."

"Schwarzenegger arrived in Sacramento with impressive political skills and a clear mandate to clean house," Walters adds. "Despite this leverage he's been surprisingly eager to roll over. For all his tough talk, he's the real girly man."

Some political observers believe Schwarzenegger will declare victory at a huge political rally and return to Hollywood when his term expires in 2006. Others predict he'll run for the Senate against Dianne Feinstein so he can exit Sacramento before all California's debts come due. Reportedly, Maria Shriver is no longer looking for a house in Sacramento, a fact that is cited as proof for both scenarios.

Close friend and political mentor Pete Wilson knows only what's not likely to occur. "Arnold has no interest in any legislative role," he says. "The next obvious step would be up to the national level where he could be chief executive or vice president. But that's not going to happen."

East-West News Service editor David DeVoss reports on California politics.

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