ANALYSIS: Governor is hoping to keep public interested in him

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The San Francisco Chronicle

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s call for a Nov. 8 special election presents him with the kind of challenge he rarely confronted as a movie action hero: keep the fickle public’s attention, and the media spotlight, focused on him for months at a time.

Case in point: Schwarzenegger’s planned, live televised announcement of the special election — intended to hijack 5 o’clock newscasts statewide — lost star billing Monday when pop star Michael Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges just hours before. In the Bay Area, on at least two stations, Jackson won higher billing — and in entertainment-obsessed Southern California, it was even more difficult for the governor to trump the celebrity.

The Jackson verdict was the first of what are likely to be many unplanned twists in the public relations road Schwarzenegger will face as he tries to keep the voters tuned in to his election day agenda.

Schwarzenegger’s four-minute formal announcement Monday was designed to reduce the election to a simple choice: pass his initiatives or pay new taxes.

“Some politicians say the answer is to raise taxes. They say, ‘Bring back the car tax, Arnold. Raise the income tax. Get rid of Prop. 13,’ ” Schwarzenegger said. “But I say no. I did not come to Sacramento and you did not send me here to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The famously confident political communicator will waste no time getting out on the campaign trail to promote his measures for a budget cap, legislative redistricting and tougher requirements for teacher tenure.

Schwarzenegger kicks off the effort today outside San Diego before moving to Orange County for another event Wednesday. In his stop today, the governor is scheduled to speak outside a private home to emphasize that his reforms will get the budget under control without boosting taxes for homeowners.

Other items on the special election ballot have fired up conservatives sympathetic to the governor. Those include “paycheck protection,” which aims to curb the power of public employee unions by prohibiting them from using members’ dues for political purposes without permission, and an initiative that requires parental notification for unmarried minors to get an abortion.

The governor’s team expresses confidence that, with Schwarzenegger on the stump, voters will pay attention.

“We wouldn’t be calling a war if we didn’t think we would be able to muster the troops,” said Todd Harris, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger. “The messaging surrounding the special election is not all that complicated. It’s basically reform versus the status quo: more power to the people, versus more power to the special interests in Sacramento. And the governor is squarely on the side of the people.”

It took Democrats just minutes to assail that “action, action, action” story line — and to suggest that the Republican governor had resurrecting the same legislative gridlock that had fueled his victory in the 2003 recall of then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

“This governor has invested everything in an election about nothing,” said state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, who warned the special election will pit Californians against one another, and create “a permanent divisive distraction.”

The governor’s political opponents also are looking to expand their effort.

The California Nurses Association, for example, plans to widen its protests beyond those of Schwarzenegger and target the people supplying cash to the governor’s anticipated $50-million campaign. One of those Schwarzenegger allies, Emeryville-based GOP fund-raiser Kristin Hueter, will be the object of a nurses’ union protest today.

“This is an extension of the campaign to show who’s behind the curtain in this election,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the nurses’ group., a group opposed to the governor, also has released a list of the top 100 contributors to Schwarzenegger’s campaign, because “it’s important for the people to know where his money comes from and who is behind Arnold’s agenda,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which runs Arnoldwatch.

Political experts say the governor has many hurdles ahead as he seeks to sell his agenda at a time polls show voters by almost 2 to 1 oppose a special election for the fall.

“Arnold is between a rock and hard place,” said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “It doesn’t look very good in the polling, and there’s a possibility of backlash, as we’ve seen before” in initiative matters.

“He’s going up a very steep hill, but it’s clear that his party base won’t let him retreat,” said Cain. “What saves Arnold is that his threshold for winning is so low.”

Even with a victory on one of his measures — the budget cap — he said, Schwarzenegger can declare the outcome “fantastic.”

The governor’s real danger is “that the other side mobilizes more effectively than he does,” said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s likely to be a fairly low-turnout election — and in that, the get-out-the-vote effort can really make a difference.”

Pitney said the so-called “paycheck protection” issue pushed by national conservatives has the most potential to affect the rest of Schwarzenegger’s agenda. “Public employees have often been able to mount opposition effectively… and the people who turn out to vote against that are likely to vote against the (governor’s other) measures.”

The idea of placing redistricting in the hands of a judicial panel, one of Schwarzenegger’s reforms, has been a very difficult sell in the past, and his budget cap initiative is “a real jump ball.”

“If Schwarzenegger can keep the focus on the bottom line, he wins,” Pitney said. “If his opponent keeps the focus on what gets cut, he doesn’t.”
E-mail the writers at [email protected] and [email protected]

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