LOS ANGELES – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed a second term Tuesday with a decisive victory over Democrat Phil Angelides, capping a yearlong comeback in which he admitted mistakes, boomeranged back to the political center and spotlighted his celebrity to win appeal across the voter spectrum.
In a year when Republicans struggled nationwide, Schwarzenegger avoided the same fate by positioning himself as an "Arnold Republican" — a bipartisan dealmaker with strained ties to the Bush White House. The actor-governor was also blessed with a lusterless opponent who failed to energize his own party, even in a state known as a Democratic stronghold.
The call for Schwarzenegger was based on a number of factors, including voter turnout, previous voting patterns and a statistical analysis of the vote from voter interviews conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
With 3 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial returns showed the governor had about 63 percent of the vote to Angelides' 33 percent.
Schwarzenegger's victory was a demoralizing blow to state Democrats who hoped to oust the nation's best-known governor. But recent polls showed Schwarzenegger with renewed popularity across party and geographic lines, including in traditionally Democratic coastal areas.
His victory is sure to raise his national stature and bring a fresh round of speculation about his political future. Schwarzenegger has joked about becoming president but because he is foreign born, it would take a constitutional amendment for him to run.
"The biggest Republican winner tonight is the one guy who can't run for president in two years," said Claremont McKenna College political scientist John Pitney. "Many Republicans will hold him up as a model for how the party can come back. He's the example of how to win."
Angelides' troubles were summed up by Pat Spake, 77, of Sacramento, who said her decision to snub the Democrat was the first time in her life she didn't vote with the party's candidate.
Angelides, the state treasurer, "had no impact whatsoever on the voting public," said Spake, was tempted to vote for Schwarzenegger but instead pulled the lever for the Green Party's Peter Camejo. "He has no charisma."
A year ago, the race was the Democrats' to lose.
The Republican governor's popularity collapsed along with his grand scheme to realign political power in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger, 59, was forced to ponder the possibility that his first term might be his last.
But the former muscleman and Hollywood star abruptly changed course. He stopped belittling "girlie-men" legislators and public employee unions, and cut deals with Democrats on popular issues like global warming and road-building. Aided by a rolling economy, his campaign won back Democratic and independent support by blending Reaganesque optimism with a return to the middle-ground politics that helped propel him to office in 2003.
"The real key to this race began last year when the governor said, 'I'm learning, I haven't done everything right,"' said Schwarzenegger's strategist Matthew Dowd.
The mandate from voters: "consensus and bipartisanship," Dowd added. "That's what the people are hungry for."
Angelides, 53, tried to convince voters Schwarzenegger is a soul mate of President Bush whose true interests are nested with the corporations and lobbyists that feed off state government.
But Democrats were slow to warm to his candidacy. Even in the election's closing days, polls suggested the liberal Democrat remained unknown to many of the states 37 million residents, even within his own party. The problem is summed up by an adage in politics — it's hard to beat somebody with nobody.
In many ways, Angelides inherited the plight of national Democrats in recent elections — the vision thing. With a haze of shifting messages, he left himself open to questions about what he stood for. Was he the anti-Arnold? The education candidate, or the one who would deliver universal health care? Champion of the middle class? Tax cutter, or tax raiser?
"I'm not a big fan of President Bush," said Marko Koosel, 35, of San Francisco, who described himself as a pro-environment, anti-war independent. He voted for Democrats for U.S. Senate and the House, but he also voted for Schwarzenegger.
"He's more in the middle. He's not really extreme," Koosel said. "I felt Phil Angelides hasn't shown anything special that would separate him."
Voters overlooked much from the governor's first term. Congressional Republicans promised reform, didn't deliver and were struggling at the polls. Schwarzenegger promised dramatic reform, pledging to "blow up the boxes" of state government, didn't deliver, and scored a watershed victory.
Schwarzenegger's new term, his first full one as governor, will also will be his last. Term limits prevent him from running again.
If last year showed the limits of Schwarzenegger's celebrity, this year he used the advantages of incumbency and stardom to dominate media coverage through much of the race.
At the same time, Schwarzenegger maneuvered through the campaign season without exposing himself to excessive risk. Only one debate was held — on a Saturday night when it competed for viewers with the baseball playoffs and college football. He granted interviews selectively. His public events often ended with few, if any, questions permitted.
His campaign was run by veterans of Bush's 2004 effort, but Schwarzenegger's campaign often looked more like one run by former President Clinton, a centrist who pivoted off both parties.
One of the sharpest distinctions in the race was the partisan divide.
Schwarzenegger had promised a new era of collaborative politics. But Angelides, with his relentless attacks on the governor and the president, talked little of bridging partisan differences.
Schwarzenegger didn't leave himself much time to savor the victory. He leaves Wednesday for a trade mission to Mexico.