Gov. Schwarzenegger, the Comeback Kid

Arnold Schwarzenegger is one lucky fellow, which is to say he’s smart enough not to make the same mistakes twice.

If I were a betting woman in this bluest of blue states, I’d put my money on the Terminator to win re-election, no small feat when you consider that every single other statewide office here is held by a Democrat.

That’s not just a triumph for the governor, but also a reflection of the weakness of his opponents, which tells you something troubling about politics not only here but across the country.

Let me make my biases clear at the outset. I’m a Democrat, but I don’t have a horse in this race. I’ve known Arnold’s wife, Maria Shriver, and her family for decades, and like them enormously. I stood up for Arnold when I thought he was treated unfairly by the media in his first run for governor, and served on his transition team.

I’ve praised him when I thought he was right, and criticized him when I thought he was wrong.

I’ve known Phil Angelides, one of his opponents, since 1988, when he was an early supporter of my presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, and co-hosted a fundraiser for Steve Westley, the other leading Democrat, when he was running for controller four years ago. In this race, I just call them as I see them.

And the way I see it now is that two increasingly weakened candidates are facing an increasingly strong incumbent.

Three things caught my eye last week. The first, and in the long run perhaps the most significant, is that Arnold and the Democratic legislature are on the verge of putting together a major bond package to put on the November ballot that will pay for infrastructure, schools, transportation, housing and flood control.

What’s important about this is that last year, Arnold called a special election to run AGAINST the legislature; this year, he’s working with them, is likely, with the help of rising tax revenues, to get a budget done on time and with no painful spending cuts, and will come to the voters in November with a joint plan for dealing with long-term needs, which was exactly the message voters sent in rejecting Arnold’s go-it-alone approach.

In short, Arnold’s governing.

What may be surprising about this, to outside observers, is that it doesn’t help his Democratic challengers one iota. But, and you probably won’t find this too shocking, the legislators seem to care more about themselves than they do about either of the Democrats running against Arnold; judging by what they’re doing, they’d rather produce results with Arnold than a campaign issue to be used against him — and them.

The best answer to the Democratic argument that Arnold isn’t up to the job is a budget, bond and spending plan, passed in cooperation with the legislature, that shows that he is; and the fact that it took him a while to get there may make some voters all that much more reluctant to change horses and give the reins to another inexperienced leader.

The second thing was the other major story in Southern California this week, which initially was enough for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to announce that he wasn’t even going to be here on May 1 for the immigration protests.

What could be big enough for the nation’s leading Hispanic mayor to leave town, a decision he reversed only at the last minute? Football. Southern California is desperate for a team.

Villaraigosa went to Dallas the next day. He did not go alone. The governor went with him. Veteran observer George Skelton noted that he could not remember any time when a California governor had traveled to an owners meeting to lobby for a professional sports team for the state. If they did, they certainly didn’t get as much press as Arnold did.

And Arnold lobbied not for one team, but in a typical Arnold way, for two. Why not aim high? It’s the California way, or it used to be.

The third factor, and the one that must be pleasing Republicans no end, is the pitiful state of the Democratic race. "Why can’t we find a Democrat who can win?" my friends keep asking.

Why indeed? Why don’t great men run for president or governor? Anyone who saw the way Arnold was dragged through the mud in the last race may know half the answer to that question.

Last week, Angelides received the overwhelming endorsement of the state Democratic convention, which surprised no one. Angelides started the race as the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which has proven to be both his great strength and his great weakness.

His endorsement by unions, elected officials, big money developers, Sacramento special interests and traditional Democratic organizers made him look to many like the inevitable nominee, like he "deserved" the nomination, which may have discouraged more electable candidates from running.

But it is just that characteristic of "insiderism" that may be pulling him down to the point that the millionaire developer is now running significantly behind his even richer opponent, who was one of the founders of eBay and has been largely funding his own campaign.

The headline of the Los Angeles Times profile of Angelides, to take one example that is almost certain to make it into a Westley ad, exemplifies Angelides’ problem: "The state treasurer and would-be governor," it reads, "has used his post to help friends and seek election cash — moves at odds with his activist image."

Who cares about the party endorsement when you’re getting press like that?

As for Westley, his greatest strength to date has been that he’s not Angelides or Schwarzenegger. Beyond that, my informal survey suggests that after spending tens of millions of dollars on television, no one can tell you much of anything about him.

What has he done, people ask, other than make money? His commercials don’t tell you. Bland is about as positive a thing as you hear. He does not move a room when he enters it. His speaking style is not electric.

To be sure, this state has a tradition of electing dull governors, like Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. But none of them beat a movie star to get there.

Is Schwarzenegger beatable? Sure. In the latest polls, he’s running even with Angelides, and trailing Westley. But Arnold isn’t up with advertisements and they are. Last October, only 40 percent of the voters had a favorable impression of the governor; in the latest polls, that number is up 11 points, to 51 percent.

The governor is coming back, and unfortunately for my party, I’m not sure the Democrats have anyone who can stop him. Where is Dianne Feinstein when we need her? In the Senate.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.

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