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The Governator and George W. Bush get together in California to discuss how they can help one another.

12:00 AM, Oct 17, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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CALIFORNIA MAY or may not factor into President Bush's reelection strategy, but at least the White House knows the local history. The President and Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger met yesterday at Riverside's Mission Inn, which has hosted GOP presidents as far back as William McKinley. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt re-planted a navel orange tree on the hotel's grounds. It's also where Richard and Pat Nixon were married, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned.

Maybe that's why partnering was the dominant theme of yesterday's tête-à-tête. Schwarzenegger said he wanted to "create a great relationship with the White House." Bush joked that in addition to marrying well and mangling words, he and the Governator-elect had something else in common--"big biceps." After a comic pause, the president kidded that "two out of three ain't bad."

There was an irony to yesterday's meeting. Bush and Schwarzenegger are the biggest stars in the Republican galaxy--numbers 1 and 1-A as event draws--yet they aren't particularly close. Arnold has probably talked more to Karl Rove than to Bush since November 2000. Still, they share common ground. Each adores the elder George Bush (in the previous Bush administration, Arnold chaired the President's Council on Physical Fitness; Bush 41 called Arnold on the night of his recall victory). Schwarzenegger and Bush 43 are both boot-wearin', country-music-lovin' guys. You could flip a coin to decide which is the bigger fitness fanatic.

Perhaps they talked about the merits of cardio versus weights during their closed-door meeting yesterday. But odds are most of the 45 minutes was devoted to laying the groundwork for a new working relationship between Sacramento and Washington. What form that will take is a favorite guessing game in California. Will the Bush administration suddenly shower the new Republican governor with riches? Will Arnold have to stand in line with the other 40 governors currently staring at budget deficits? Or is there a third way for the White House to bond with California, by crafting initiatives that are long on symbolism but short on cash.

The smart money says the White House goes that third route--simply because it won't part with the kind of money Arnold wants. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger bemoaned the unfairness of California's status as a "donor" state. The Golden State gets back about 76 cents in federal money for every tax dollar it sends to Washington--only five states have a more unfavorable ratio (the last time California received more than it paid was 1984, courtesy of the Reagan defense buildup). That's a $50 billion annual imbalance.

But unfortunately for Arnold, that idea doesn't hold up in the court of political reality. Facing a $500 billion federal deficit, Washington's in no mood--and no position--to shovel money to the states. Even in flush times during the 1990s, the feds turned a deaf ear on California when it came to illegal immigration reimbursements (the driving cause behind Proposition 187). Arnold would also have to explain why he deserves favorable treatment within his own party: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Nevada each rank worse than California and have Republican governors.

SO WHAT'S A GOVERNATOR TO DO if Washington isn't willing to open the money spigot? Some suggestions:

(1) Fight Base-Closing. The next round of defense cuts, to be decided in 2004, will be painful for California. Potential losses include of Sacramento's Beale Air Force Base, the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in the Mojave Desert, and Navy and Marine facilities in San Diego. Arnold can talk fairness since California's suffered the worst during this process of elimination. Of the 97 bases closed between 1988 and 1995, more than 20 facilities were in California. He can also talk jobs and the economy (more than 165,000 personnel work on California's military bases). And he can do what former Republican Governor Pete Wilson did a year ago: ask for public hearings statewide, gin up local support, and turn up the heat on Washington. If President Bush is campaigning next year on national security, sparing a base is the sort of good news he'll want to deliver in person.