THE MOST POPULAR REPUBLICAN in the country, Secretary of State Colin Powell, won't be speaking at the Republican National Convention this week. But the man who is arguably the second most popular Republican takes the stage tonight: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it should be quite a talk. When Schwarzenegger approaches the podium at Madison Square Garden, after all, political junkies across the country will be on the edge of their sofas, holding their breath, as they wait for the answer to an important question: Will Arnold call Democrats "girly men" again, as he did in July?
You scoff. But most of the other questions surrounding Arnold's appearance have been settled. For example, over the last few months, ever since Schwarzenegger won a decisive victory in the California recall election last fall, there's been talk of tension, even conflict, between the Schwarzenegger and Bush political machines. As recently as June, Newsweek reported that Arnold still wasn't sure if he'd attend the convention. Other reports highlighted the fact that Schwarzenegger hasn't made many public appearances with President Bush. Still others mentioned that Schwarzenegger likely wouldn't stump for the president outside of California.
The implications were clear. Bush feels upstaged by the Governator, the storyline went. And Arnold, the cigar-chomping, pro-choice, gay-friendly moderate, wants to distance himself from the president's social conservatism. Here is how Michael Blitz, author of Why Arnold Matters, put it to the Los Angeles Times: "All Arnold would have to do is say the president is doing a fantastic job and he would swing a whole bunch of voters. The fact that he hasn't done that is fascinating."
Maybe. And maybe he's just been biding his time. In his speech tonight, Arnold plans to show that this storyline isn't accurate. As Schwarzenegger delivers his "positive" and "uplifting" talk on the "American dream," aides say, he will also voice strong support for President Bush. Reports of animosity between the governor and the president have been exaggerated. "There's always a little stress between a national campaign and a local governor's political operation," says one senior Schwarzenegger adviser. "But people ought to look at the fundamentals: Arnold strongly supports this party and strongly supports this president. We're here to help."
Which is not to say that these two colossi of American politics don't have their differences. At the meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington last winter, for instance, Schwarzenegger, much to the Bush team's chagrin, reportedly drew longer lines than the president. Also, Schwarzenegger, like any governor, wants to see the federal government pick up more of his state's tab, going so far as to say that Bush's chances in California are "directly related to how much he will do for our state." And Schwarzenegger-unlike, say, Rudy Giuliani-isn't a Bush surrogate, defending the president's policies across the country and on the air.
Instead, Arnold has made California politics a priority. "We have our own politics to deal with," says an aide. "There's this unrealistic appetite for Arnold to run around everywhere, hanging out with Bush at Burger King and whatnot, which he doesn't have time to do." The governor has a packed legislative schedule to deal with in California, too, this aide continues, which is why he's currently scheduled to leave New York on Thursday morning, before the president arrives. (Or maybe not: One Schwarzenegger adviser says that "there's some flexibility about when Arnold's going to depart.").
The tension between Schwarzenegger and Bush supposedly began with the latter's lukewarm support for Arnold in last year's California recall. Bush, for the most part, stayed out of that race, saying only that Arnold "would make a good governor." But here, too, sources inside the two camps say the press is hyping the differences. The Bushies "didn't ask" to help, says one GOP consultant who worked on the recall campaign, "but neither did we."
"It's a lot of tea-leaf reading," says the Arnold adviser, when asked about the perceived tensions between the governor and the president. "There is a prewritten, lazy narrative by the press, based on their view that moderate Republicans are somehow better than conservative Republicans, and that conservatives need to be seen as moderates in order to get elected." Arnold's status as political phenom only feeds this narrative. "The press loves covering Arnold," the adviser continues. "They always want more."
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.