California's Green Governor Schwarzenegger Steals Thunder from Democrats

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has once again reinvented himself. While his fellow Republicans suffer from the president's decline in popularity, Schwarzenegger is billing himself as a savior of the environment. Voters trust him, and his name has now become just as closely associated with politics as it once was with bodybuilding and acting.

By in Sacramento, California

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Winning over Californians

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Winning over Californians

Triumph produces testosterone, and that's what Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to keep him going. Even today, days after California's televised gubernatorial debate, he still relishes that gleeful moment when he asked his opponent: "What was the funniest moment of your campaign?"

It was a deadly question. Phil Angelides, Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent, grinned like a comic book character, giggled and finally produced this feeble response: "Every day is just a hoot -- I can't tell you how much fun."

It was a typical Schwarzenegger move, pitting man against man, ego against ego. When it comes to ego, no one can beat Schwarzenegger. "If someone can't even think of something fun at a moment like that," he says, "it says a lot about them."

He's sitting in the smokers' tent in the courtyard of the governor's mansion in Sacramento. He had the tent set up because smoking is prohibited in his office, which is covered by a smoking ban in public spaces. Instead, he has made his tent his office, and this is the place where anyone who wants to be seen with Schwarzenegger comes to visit. This is where the governor of California runs the state.

Schwarzenegger sits on a lawn chair. A photograph on the wall depicts him sitting down, leaning forward slightly, smoking and cloaked in cigar smoke. The chair under the photograph is his favorite spot -- and he likes to sit there beneath his own likeness, hovering in a haze of smoke and admiring himself. Things are going well for the governor, very well. Schwarzenegger is on top.

He may really only be six feet tall, but almost everything about Schwarzenegger seems somehow gigantic -- his hands, his head, his mouth. Only his eyes are small, almost reptilian. He squints, almost closing his eyes, and leans forward a bit more. He lowers his voice, playing his favorite role, the bad guy: "I love that moment when the camera zooms in on you. The people can see your eyes. They can see you blinking, swallowing, sweating and moving your Adam's apple. That's the moment when the truth comes out."

Californians will be voting their next governor into office on Nov. 7, but it's already a near-foregone conclusion that the incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger, will win the race. Opinion polls show him so far ahead that the only way he could lose would be by making a major mistake. He is 59 years old, and he still has big plans.

Graphic: Swarzenegger's approval rating

Graphic: Swarzenegger's approval rating

Fifty percent of poll respondents say they plan to vote for Schwarzenegger in November. That puts him 17 percentage points ahead of his Democratic challenger, who will be forgotten soon after the election, just as Cruz Bustamante, who suffered a devastating defeat against Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2003, was quickly forgotten. Fifty-six percent believe Schwarzenegger is a good governor, which is remarkable for a Republican in traditionally liberal and Democratic California. Not many governors in the United States will likely experience the same triumph in November, nor will the Republicans, who face the real possibility of losing their majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Beating Democrats at their own game

California's Democrats have run out of weapons to fight Schwarzenegger. As governor, he has signed many bills into law that were essentially theirs, including a law that raises the minimum wage in the state to the highest level ever seen in America. Schwarzenegger also plans to spend $37 billion on the state's infrastructure, including money for dams, roads and ports. The incumbent has also thrown his support behind amplifying California's pioneering role in environmental protection. This too is a dream traditionally pursued by the Democrats, or at least a dream for California, which, as America's most populous state, has always tried to be the country's most progressive.

To appeal to a broad base, in other words, Schwarzenegger has formed groundbreaking domestic and international alliances aimed at protecting the environment.

In August, the state passed the most comprehensive controls on carbon dioxide emissions of any American state. California has also signed a deal to conduct research on clean-energy technologies with Britain. Indeed, the face of British Prime Minister Tony Blair was projected onto a giant screen at one Schwarzenegger campaign event. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has appeared with Schwarzenegger at campaign fundraisers and has toured a Silicon Valley fuel-cell company with the governor, where he announced a major New York initiative to study greenhouse gas emissions. More talks and alliances are still in the works. After the election, Schwarzenegger will travel to Europe to hold talks with European Union officials -- a reflection of the fact that Europe has more in common with California than it does with the rest of America.

The goal of greening the United States by reducing its dependence on expensive gasoline (expensive by American standards) is a political issue that traditionally belongs to the Democrats. With his documentary film about the environment, the unsinkable Al Gore, has just shown the Democrats how it can be done. But Schwarzenegger is making a play for Gore's territory.

Schwarzenegger now gives President George W. Bush a wide berth. He doesn't meet with the president when he comes to California. The Iraq debacle, with its daily reports of deaths and bombings, has made the president particularly unpopular here. And Schwarzenegger has been so successful at distancing himself from Bush that ads caricaturing the governor as the president's lapdog were completely unsuccessful.


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