SAN FRANCISCO – A year after his stunning victory at the polls, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) is testing the strength of his political biceps.
Armed with high approval ratings and a hefty campaign war chest, Schwarzenegger plans to observe the first anniversary of the recall election Thursday by once again hitting the campaign trail.
As he tries to knock off some Democratic legislators as well as a ballot issue he doesn't like, analysts said his ability to influence the outcome of other races may prove the ultimate test of his clout.
"He has shown that when he campaigns for himself or for an idea that is his, he is terrific at it," said Bill Whalen, a Republican strategist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The question is whether the magic is transferable."
So far, it's not working at the top of the ticket in California. Schwarzenegger supports President Bush and Republican Senate candidate Bill Jones, but both are trailing their Democratic opponents, John Kerry (search) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (search). And almost no one thinks Schwarzenegger can help Republicans wrest control of the Legislature from Democrats, who enjoy a large majority in both the Assembly and Senate.
"A year ago, there was talk — 'Arnold won! The state is in play!' But California today is not in play," said longtime Democratic strategist Kam Kuwata. "So at some point, there is going to be the question, 'what did he really accomplish in the 2004 general election?"'
The rookie governor has already racked up a remarkable string of political victories, from persuading voters to approve a $15 billion bond deal to pay down the state's debt to cutting a budget deal with Democrats who control the Legislature.
He was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in New York and has raised about $20 million for various campaign committees since he took office to promote issues and candidates throughout the state.
Schwarzenegger's major target — Proposition 70, which would expand Indian gambling in exchange for providing more money to state and local governments — is already trailing in statewide polls. Another Schwarzenegger target — Proposition 68, which would have allowed card clubs and race tracks to operate slot machines — faced all but certain defeat and was abruptly abandoned by its backers Wednesday.
Having already struck deals with several tribes to return about $200 million in revenue annually in exchange for some casino expansion, Schwarzenegger will crisscross the state warning that Proposition 70 would undermine those agreements and allow Las Vegas-style gambling in the major urban areas.
With Proposition 68 gone and Proposition 70 trailing badly, Schwarzenegger could easily step up his involvement in state legislative races, the Jones-Boxer contest or even help Bush.
But because Schwarzenegger's own strength in Democrat-leaning California is based largely on his image as a nonpartisan reformer, some observers believe he may want to refrain from throwing too sharp an elbow in many races.
"The truth is, what we're seeing is his reluctance to jump into full partisan warfare," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "The rewards are kind of minimal, so is it worth it to him for the acrimony he'd create?"
Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman disputes that, saying the governor will begin stumping for Republicans around the state once he is assured that Proposition 70 is on its way down.