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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2003 / 18 Tishrei, 5764

Roger Simon

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President Schwarzenegger? | LOS ANGELES On the morning of October 7, an earthquake measuring 3.6 on the Richter Scale rattled Southern California. By that evening, however, the entire state had been shaken up.

The second tremor came in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born bodybuilder and high-body-count actor, who had been a professional politician for exactly 62 days but had now beaten an incumbent governor with nearly 30 years of political experience.

Through California's bizarre recall law, which allows citizens to dump officeholders for any (or no) reason, Schwarzenegger had surfed a tsunami of voter anger all the way to the governor's chair in Sacramento, which he will assume in mid-November.

Some 31 times in the past, California voters had tried to get rid of their governors — ' they tried to jettison Ronald Reagan three times — ' but this was the first time they had ever succeeded.

Why this time? And while the media immediately used the Schwarzenegger victory as an excuse to commit sociology, does his victory really mark a national trend with wider implications?

Or was it the result of the coming together of three strands unlikely to be found outside California:

One, an incumbent unsuited to the demands of modern campaigning.

Two, a recall law that does not demand misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfea sance to be proved against the incumbent

Three, a method of election that allowed the pro-choice, pro-gun safety, pro-gay rights Schwarzenegger to avoid a Republican primary that he might well have lost to a more conservative candidate.

The bland incumbent, Gray Davis, thought he knew why he was facing defeat. "I never underestimate an actor who is a celebrity," Davis said on the eve of the election. "This is California; celebrities are a big deal here."

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The very excitement generated by a superstar candidate not only helped Schwarzenegger during the campaign but helped doom his opponent: Davis had managed to win statewide office five times because he didn't really have to go out and campaign. California is so vast physically and media interest, especially TV interest, has been so low in recent years that candidates campaign largely via TV commercials. At this, Davis did well.

But the explosion of interest caused by Schwarzenegger forced the candidates to go out and do actual campaign events in front of real people so television would have something to broadcast.

Schwarzenegger proved adept at providing good sound bites: He kept his speeches to just a few minutes, he avoided specifics, and he presented a message of optimism and hope.

In desperation, Davis held a series of town meet ings, but this did not help much. Often arrogant and always defensive, Davis reminded voters why they disliked him.

But Schwarzenegger needed something more than soundbites — ' there are 1.3 million more Democrats than Republicans in California — ' and that something, which has been taken seriously by politicians ever since the term-limit movement of the 1990s, was empowering the angry.

It was perfect for California, where voters were not just angry but in a white-hot fury. That fury had been directed at Davis ever since the electricity blackouts of 2000 and 2001, which resulted in higher utility bills, and the collapse of the California economy, which created multibillion-dollar budget deficits that led to a tripling of the car tax, which caused vehicle license fees to jump from about $70 to $210 for the average passenger car.

"Our most difficult task was getting people to see Arnold as a plausible governor in difficult times," a top aide to Schwarzenegger told me. "I mean here was a guy with no political experience. He had just come off a movie. And he wanted to go from Terminator 3 to governor in 60 days."

Schwarzenegger was doing well, however, until less than a week before Election Day, disaster struck: The Los Angeles Times began printing in chilling detail accusations by women that Schwarzenegger had groped and improperly touched them. The number of accusers eventually rose to 15, and Schwarzenegger, who had just begun a four-day bus trip — ' exactly the kind of big-time campaign event he had wanted — ' was forced to apologize to any woman he had "offended."

Schwarzenegger's poll numbers dipped, and the campaign was clearly worried. Women are 52 percent of likely voters in California.

But Schwarzenegger did have powerful friends, who helped minimize the impact. Leno said in one of his nightly monologues: "You've got Arnold who groped a few women, or Davis who screwed the whole state."

Then Davis handed Schwarzenegger an unexpected boost. At first, Davis refused to comment on the accusations against Schwarzenegger. But he soon went into attack mode, bringing the accusations up again and again and suggesting that Schwarzenegger might face criminal prosecution. Almost immediate ly, Schwarzenegger's poll numbers improved. People had been reminded of what they didn't like about Davis: his negativity.

"When Davis embraced the scandal stories, our numbers shot up," Sipple says.

In the end it was a blowout: Voters turned Davis out of office by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent and elected Schwarzenegger over his nearest competitor by a vote of 49 percent to 32 percent.

Sipple is convinced that Schwarzenegger will work hard and let nothing sully his governorship. "Governor of California is the highest job he can achieve given his citizenship," Sipple says.

Maybe. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has already introduced a resolution to amend the Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens who have lived here for 20 years to ascend to the White House.

"If Arnold Schwarzenegger turns out to be the greatest governor of California, which I hope he will, if he turns out to be a tremendous leader and he proves to everybody in this country that he's totally dedicated to this country as an American, we would be wrong not to give him that opportunity," Hatch says.

President Schwarzenegger? It might sound funny now, but so did Governor Schwarzenegger a few months ago.

And as Schwarzenegger likes to say in both his movies and his speeches: "I'll be back!"

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