Stateline Story

California Governor Facing First Test of Political-Star Power

Not quite five months ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger stunned California and the nation as he roared into the governor's office on a wave of voter discontent.

With its March 2 primary, California again finds itself in the political spotlight, as the governor pushes a pair of ballot measures that he says are crucial to fixing the state's budget woes and in another nod to Schwarzenegger's star power, voters may be poised to deliver a major victory that just days ago had seemed completely out of reach.

A Field Poll on Tuesday showed an almost unheard-of turnaround on Proposition 57, which would issue $15 billion in bonds to retire state budget debts, with 50 percent of likely voters saying they support the measure, and 36 percent in opposition. A Los Angeles Times poll released the same day found 51 percent in favor of the measure and 34 percent opposed.

In January, the Field Poll reported that just 33 percent of respondents favored the measure, 40 percent opposed it and 27 percent were undecided. A poll on Feb. 20 by the Public Policy Institute of California following a round of television ads and campaign events found backers and opponents evenly split at 38 percent.

Pollsters and political consultants had said those earlier results appeared to spell near-certain doom for Schwarzenegger's budget package but on Wednesday they were calling the new numbers historic and crediting the governor's political gloss for the reversal.

"I've been polling since 1978 and only one measure in that whole period started out behind and was ultimately approved by voters," said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. "That's why we say it's so historic and so unusual we've never seen anything like this before . . . Schwarzenegger is not only the governor, but a celebrity. He's a very attractive-looking person and he projects a very powerful image on screen."

The two propositions, 57 and 58, would respectively issue bonds to retire debts that California accrued from deficit spending in previous fiscal years, and require the state to adopt balanced budgets in the future. Voters must approve both measures for either one to take effect. In Tuesday's Field Poll, Prop 58 was favored by 55 percent of those surveyed, while 28 percent opposed the measure.

Should the Schwarzenegger-backed package fail, it could cause budgetary chaos in a state whose annual economic output is roughly the size of France, and could also augur a return to the kind of political gridlock that Schwarzenegger had vowed to end.

"The governor has staked a great deal of his budget plan on these measures passing," said R. Michael Alvarez, associate director of the Center for the Study of Law and Politics, a research facility of the University of Southern California and California Institute of Technology. "It's also critical for the governor's ongoing political battles, because . . . if there starts to be increasing evidence that voters are not happy with the way things are going, the knives will come out and Sacramento will get back to more divisive again."

Schwarzenegger's personal popularity, a slew of high-profile endorsements and a war chest that in mid-February stood at more than $6 million certainly have helped the budget package, but so has the relatively quiet efforts of Prop 57 and 58 opponents.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat widely viewed as planning a run for governor in 2006, executed an adroit flanking maneuver last week, issuing a contingency plan to cover the state's shortfall, should the March 2 bond measure fail, that would not require the massive budget cuts that Schwarzenegger has threatened.

Schwarzenegger administration officials, who have maintained a firm, no-new-taxes budget position, have said that if the ballot measures fail, the roughly $15 billion deficit for 2004-05 could nearly double and they would be forced to make draconian program cuts that go far deeper than the governor's existing budget proposal.

Schwarzenegger himself told a town meeting in Fresno that the state would face "Armageddon cuts" if the bond measures lose.

The Angelides contingency plan, which includes a temporary income tax increase on wealthy individuals, pointedly drew from the recessionary budget planning of former G.O.P. governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, which did the same thing.

But opponents overall did not raise large amounts of cash or band together in a concerted campaign to fight the measures a stark contrast to the governor's high-flying efforts.

At a press conference last week with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Controller Steve Westly, the campaign co-chair and another Democrat, Schwarzenegger continued to deliver his upbeat prognosis.

"When I ran for governor, I said over and over that we needed to change the culture in Sacramento," said Schwarzenegger. "I said that the politicians in Sacramento should be looking for ways to work together, not fight together. I am pleased to report that we are making progress. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party have a monopoly on good ideas. When we work together, we can achieve much more for the people of California."