LOS ANGELES – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to end his speeches with a flourish from his Terminator days: "I'll be back!"
The way his re-election bid is going, he's probably right.
Beaten, bruised and adrift just a year ago, the former Hollywood action star has become the clear favorite against Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides on Nov. 7, having turned things around by moving to the political center, collaborating with Democrats in the Legislature and watching his mouth.
If Schwarzenegger can pull it off on Election Day, it will be "the most successful rehabilitation in recent California history," as political scientist Bruce Cain put it.
The Republican has rebounded by doing something altogether unusual in politics: apologizing for his mistakes, changing course and breaking with his own party.
"Conventional wisdom says you have to be consistent," said Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's hard to say Arnold is consistent ... but it's worked for him."
Schwarzenegger's rebound has been aided by an employment boomlet and an economy that has pumped billions of dollars of unexpected cash into the treasury, allowing him to lavish money on education and other popular programs.
At the same time, the relatively unknown Angelides has yet to stir widespread excitement among Democrats. A brainy, Harvard-educated detail guy, the 53-year-old Angelides has been hard-pressed to compete with Schwarzenegger's Hollywood charisma.
Allyson Dworkin, a 43-year-old Democrat and stay-at-home mother from Santa Monica, voted against Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election, and she doesn't like his history of off-color remarks about women. Yet she is open-minded about November and impressed with Schwarzenegger's green streak on environmental issues.
"He surprised me. I expected a lot of bluster and not much else," she said. Asked about Angelides, she paused, her face pinched. "I just don't know a whole lot about him," she said.
A year ago, the celebrity governor was all threats and partisan bluster, raging against legislators and public employee unions. But after voters in November soundly rejected his slate of proposals to undercut labor and give him a tighter grip on spending, and his standing in the polls fell, he adopted a less belligerent course.
He has been all smiles with powerful Democrats such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while keeping far away from an unpopular President Bush.
He has executed turnarounds to boost the minimum wage, establish prescription drug discounts and spend more on schools, and has reached deals with the Democrats to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions and invest heavily in roads and other public works.
As Schwarzenegger put it last year during one of his lowest moments, he learned in Hollywood to "listen carefully to the people. If one of the movies goes in the toilet, you know that was the wrong story. That's not the kind of movie you want to do."
Still, in a state rich with Democratic voters, there are reasons to be cautious about the outcome.
Most Californians feel the state is on the wrong track, polls show. Schwarzenegger's on-again, off-again praise for the Minutemen, the volunteer group that patrols the border against illegal immigrants, has strained his relations with Hispanics.
And Schwarzenegger has a rebellious right in his own party, angry over increased spending, a lack of progress on illegal immigration and his coziness with Democrats.
Moreover, this is a difficult year for Republicans nationwide, with many voters unhappy with Bush and the war in Iraq. The latest round of Democratic ads paints Schwarzenegger as a soulmate of Bush whose true interests lie with corporations and the wealthy.
"He's a Bush clone who's trying to cover it up, hoping to slip back into office," Angelides said during a campaign stop.
Independent polls have shown the governor leading by double digits, with Angelides trailing even in heavily Democratic coastal counties. In one poll last month, Schwarzenegger was tied with his rival in the Democratic heartland of the San Francisco Bay area.
Also, Angelides has raised just half of the $32 million that Schwarzenegger has banked this year, which could hinder him from buying the expensive TV advertising he needs to reach voters in California's many media markets.
Schwarzenegger, 59, likes to say that he is wedded to ideas, not party orthodoxy — a self-described "Arnold Republican." But his record has left him open to questions about what he really stands for, and who the real Schwarzenegger is.
"That's a facade," said Eddie Ramirez, 22, a business management major at a Los Angeles technical school and a registered independent. Angelides is "the right guy for the job."