LOS ANGELES – His own status as leader of the free world notwithstanding, President Bush is counting on the unprecedented star power of another Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), to offer him a much-needed political boost.
Bush, who flew to California Wednesday for a two-day campaign swing, was set to appear with Schwarzenegger at a Republican Party fund-raiser in Los Angeles. The event was expected to net $3 million for the party and give Bush an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the state's most popular and effective politician.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger is a very important part of our mission to change the face and reach of party," said Gerry Parsky, Bush's California campaign chairman. "The support he gets from the people and his success at establishing a bipartisan approach to governing, we believe, can be translated into a real plus for us."
Schwarzenegger, who was swept into office in October after voters decisively ousted his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, saw his celebrity status firmly cemented Tuesday when voters overwhelmingly endorsed his $15 billion bond proposal (search) to pay down the state's debt. But at the same time, a whopping 83 percent of Democratic voters in that election said they were angry or very dissatisfied with the performance of the Bush administration, exit polls showed.
Bush lost the state to Democratic Vice President Al Gore in 2000 by 1.3 million votes, and despite an uptick in GOP voter registration since the recall election, Democrats still out number Republicans by 43 to 36 percent.
Republican officials insist that largely because of Schwarzenegger, the party has never been more unified or better positioned to mount an effective campaign on the president's behalf. But mindful that Bush cannot defeat likely Democratic nominee John Kerry on the strength of Republican votes alone, strategists say they will rely heavily on Schwarzenegger's bipartisan appeal to shore up support for the president among the state's Democrats and Independents, who hold the key to victory here.
But Schwarzenegger himself has signaled that a victory for Bush in California would only come with a price. While he is serving as honorary co-chairman of Bush's California campaign, Schwarzenegger has bluntly stated that the president's chances of winning the state's 55 electoral votes will be directly tied to his willingness to extend more money to the state.
"If the federal government does great things for California this year I think there's no two ways about it, that President Bush can have California, he can be elected, I'm absolutely convinced of that," Schwarzenegger said in a television interview last month. "I think it is totally directly related to how much he will do for our state, there's no two ways about it. Because Californian people are like a mirror, you know that what you do for them they will do back for you."
Despite Schwarzenegger's own pledge to be the "Collectinator" for federal aid for California, the budget Bush sent to Congress in February offered the state little good news.
An avowed moderate on those issues, Schwarzenegger recently parted ways with Bush on the volatile and visible topic of gay marriage. While Schwarzenegger has directed state Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search) to halt San Francisco's high-profile gay wedding spree, he told Tonight Show host Jay Leno Monday that he opposes a constitutional amendment banning such unions that Bush recently endorsed.
"I think those issues should be left to the state," Schwarzenegger said. "So I have no use for a constitutional amendment or change in that at all."
Schwarzenegger also told Leno that he would not object if voters changed the law currently banning gay marriage in California.
Parsky sought to minimize such differences, saying that on the matters of greatest concern to most voters -- including the economy and the war on terror -- Schwarzenegger and Bush are firmly in lockstep.
"When the governor stands behind the president despite some minor differences on those issues, that sends an important message," Parsky said. "His willingness to speak out for the president means his followers will listen."
But Kerry spokeswoman Laura Capps predicted that in the end, Schwarzenegger's own personal magnetism would do little to affect Bush's political prospects in the state.
"Californians are really angry," Capps said. "We still have 300,000 people who've lost jobs since Bush took office and 6 million who don't have health insurance. No matter who is in Sacramento, I don't think there's a lot of faith that Bush can turn it around."