Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) promised to wage a great battle this fall in a special election showdown with unions, special interests and — most of all — the Democrats.
But with polls showing his popularity in decline and a key petition deadline looming, there is growing uncertainty about whether Schwarzenegger still wants the confrontation.
"This has been a catastrophe from beginning to end," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University (search), Fullerton. "He's proposed a year of warfare with the Democrats on issues that unite them against him — this is not a great way to govern a blue state."
The Republican governor had hoped to strong-arm the Legislature's Democratic majority into bargaining with him by raising enormous amounts of money and threatening to take his measures to the people if he doesn't get what he wants.
The Democrats, however, so far have called his bluff and refused his suggestions that they draw up compromise legislation.
Schwarzenegger offered up four proposed constitutional amendments that would reshape the political and social landscape: a cap on state spending, a restriction on tenure for teachers, the privatization of public pensions and the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts.
But his platform has begun to collapse.
Earlier this month, the governor withdrew the pension measure. Now, backers of the redistricting and tenure proposals have expressed doubts they can turn in petitions by the deadline at the end of the month.
Asked this week about his commitment to calling the election, Schwarzenegger struck a different tone, saying he was more open to negotiating with lawmakers.
"All of those things ought to be worked out in the state Capitol," he said. "I always said if we can't do it with the legislators, then we go directly to the people."
Schwarzenegger used the same strategy successfully last year.
He drove a diverse group to the bargaining table over California's costly workers' compensation system by raising big money to bankroll a petition drive supporting a ballot measure and then threatened to put it before voters if a compromise could not be achieved.
Some GOP analysts said Schwarzenegger has shown great skill when his back is against the wall, and they point out that he remains popular and persuasive.
The governor has raised only a portion of the $50 million he said he needs this year, although so far it has been enough to fuel his petition drive.
The problem has been that politically potent unions for nurses, firefighters and police strongly oppose Schwarzenegger's proposals on pensions and state spending limits.
Sensing the governor's weakness, Democrats and their supporters have virtually shut down negotiations with Schwarzenegger in recent weeks.
"There's a perception that the education coalition doesn't have to retreat one inch," said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for local school districts and part of the alliance opposing the governor's agenda. "There's no interest in compromise."