George Bush's Terminator problem

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the GOP's best shot yet at a California comeback. But his playboy ways and pro-choice politics make him anathema to the president's allies on the Christian right.

Published August 12, 2003 11:18PM (EDT)

A few months after the U.S. Supreme Court called off the counting and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, a New York Times reporter asked Republican strategist Karl Rove about the future for Republicans in California. The overall outlook was bleak. Al Gore had trounced Bush in the state without even trying; Democrats held virtually every statewide elective office and a huge lead in voter registration; and the California Republican Party was dysfunctional and in disarray. For the chief White House political strategist, there was just one bright spot in the Golden State: the hope that Arnold Schwarzenegger might someday run for governor. "That would be nice," Rove told the Times. "That would be really nice. That would be really, really nice."

Well, maybe.

Together with more than 190 other candidates who filed papers in time to meet last Saturday's deadline, Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for governor of California now. And while Bush told reporters Friday that he thought Schwarzenegger would make a "good governor," the White House may soon discover that a Terminator candidacy is not so nice after all. Although Schwarzenegger's run to replace Gov. Gray Davis is playing like the second coming for mainstream Republicans, it threatens to open a nasty rift between the Bush administration and the right-wing Christians to whom it usually kowtows.

The problem: While the White House is eager to back a winner in California -- and a Time/CNN poll released over the weekend has Schwarzenegger looking like one -- born-again Christian conservatives are mortified by the actor's liberal views on abortion and homosexuality and wary about allegations of drug use, infidelity and juvenile sexual antics. The Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the ultra-right Traditional Values Coalition, warned in a statement last week of a "moral vacuum" in Sacramento. "It is hard to imagine a worse governor than Gray Davis," Sheldon said, "but Mr. Schwarzenegger would be it."

Sheldon's group has launched an anti-Arnie project called Californians for Moral Government. James Lafferty, a consultant for the group, said its work is just the first rumbling of an earthquake to come. "There's a gathering storm on the right," Lafferty told Salon Sunday. "Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan and, we have been told, a number of other prominent conservatives are going to come out against Schwarzenegger and say he's not a real conservative."

There is plenty of evidence to support the charge. Schwarzenegger has expressed support for abortion rights, gay adoption and gun control. During Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Bill Clinton, Schwarzenegger said he was "embarrassed" to be a Republican. And in an interview with Salon in 2001, he said he supported George W. Bush but that "it would have been better if he had really won, instead of through the courts."

Limbaugh and Reagan have both expressed their concerns about Schwarzenegger on their radio shows and in columns, and Lafferty predicted that other conservative Republicans, including Col. Oliver North, will soon join the chorus.

Leaders of other conservative Republican groups were holding their fire Monday. Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, said her group would wait to hear more about Schwarzenegger's views and his background before deciding what do about the recall. But if conservatives like North and groups like the Christian Coalition get into the fight, the White House will face a choice: back away from Schwarzenegger or risk losing some of its love from conservatives, and particularly the religious right. "I don't think the White House wants to get caught between a fairly large religious community in California and Arnold Schwarzenegger," Lafferty told Salon. "The White House has built a pretty good relationship with religious conservatives. Getting involved with Schwarzenegger would be a waste of the goodwill they've accumulated."

After weeks of predictions and prognostications, false starts and broken vows, the dust cleared in the California recall over the weekend. Would-be candidates had until Saturday at 5 p.m. to file the papers necessary to put their names on the Oct. 7 ballot. When time ran out Saturday, three serious Republican contenders were in the race: Schwarzenegger, conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock, and businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who pumped $1.6 million into the recall drive, was in the race early but dropped out after Schwarzenegger got in. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth is running as an independent from the right; columnist Arianna Huffington is running as one from the left. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is the only prominent Democrat in the race; like Issa, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi was in but backed out before the filing deadline.

With the field set -- at least until somebody else drops out -- the candidates and the parties have begun plotting their paths to the plurality needed to win on Oct. 7. For Democrats, the two competing strategies advanced before Saturday are both now history. Party leaders failed in their attempt to keep any prominent Democrat out of the race -- Bustamante decided to run after seeing polls suggesting that the governor's "political viability" was disappearing -- while members of the state's congressional delegation failed in their bid to draft Sen. Dianne Feinstein. As a result, Democrats are now left mouthing a less-than-convincing two-part mantra: "No on the recall, but yes on Bustamante."

The Republicans have different, but no less vexing, problems. With three plausible candidates -- and half of a fourth in Ueberroth -- they risk splitting the vote and leaving a Democrat in control of the state. Picking a winner now, in what amounts to a primary conducted through public opinion polls, appears to be essential for a Republican victory.

But for Republicans generally, and for the Bush White House in particular, the Golden State has been a black hole, where the right choice has frequently been impossible to see and even harder to make. Although the state gave rise to Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has carried California since 1988. Democrats now hold every single statewide elective office, and the president's approval ratings are lower in California than they are anywhere else in the country. The California Republican Party has been its own worst enemy, routinely nominating extreme right-wing candidates who cannot possibly beat their Democratic opponents in general elections. The White House threw its support behind a moderate, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, in the last gubernatorial primary. He lost to the more conservative Simon, who in turn ran a bumbling campaign that left the White House flatfooted and embarrassed.

Davis barely beat Simon in November, and right-wing Republicans launched their recall drive shortly thereafter. Although the White House watched the drive closely, the Bush team was careful to keep its fingerprints off of it. Rove met with Schwarzenegger in the spring; Laura Bush aide Noelia Rodriguez advised Riordan as he contemplated entering the race; and Bush's California liaison, Gerald Parsky, met in July with representatives of possible Republican candidates in the hope of developing a unified strategy for beating Davis. Publicly, however, Bush said that the recall was a matter for the people of California, and that he was staying out of it.

But then came the Terminator.

Schwarzenegger announced his intentions on "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, apparently surprising both host Jay Leno and his own closest advisors, who had been told that Schwarzenegger had decided not to run. With his announcement -- and Feinstein's earlier in the day -- Schwarzenegger immediately became the frontrunner. Radio talk-show callers have declared themselves "amped" about Arnie's candidacy, apparently hoping that his on-screen tough-guy persona means he can kick some serious Sacramento butt.

By Friday, the national press was so focused on the suddenly star-studded recall that Bush couldn't stay out of it any longer. When reporters asked him about Schwarzenegger at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the president said he wouldn't want to arm-wrestle Arnie but thought he'd make a "good governor." At about the same time, Matt Drudge was posting a new photograph on his Web site: a black and white shot of a beaming, youthful Arnie, his head straddled by the legs of a topless hottie.

Conservative Christians see a photo like that and feel "a sense of separation," says Lafferty. "There are good, solid prominent Republicans who are well-suited to run for governor," he said. "This guy clearly is not that serious."

That's not the way many Republicans see it, of course. While a Democrat with a record like Schwarzenegger's would be deemed all but un-American by Karl Rove and his friends at Fox, many of the Republicans who see hope in Schwarzenegger are willing to accept the sacrilege that comes with his stardom. "The Republican Party is not monolithic," said Jonathan Wilcox, who was the spokesman for Issa's campaign. Pointing to pro-choice Republicans who have served as governors and antiabortion Democrats who have served in the House, Wilcox says parties do what they have to do in order to win elections.

And for Republicans in California right now, the most important thing is winning the race to replace Davis. Anyone -- or, at least, any Republican -- would be better than the incumbent governor, they say, even if that anyone isn't the Republican they'd choose if they thought they had a choice. "Republicans want to win more than anything now," said Jo Ellen Allen, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Orange County. "It's not just winning to win, but you can't do anything if you don't win."

Arguments like that don't fly with some Christian conservatives. Lori Waters, executive director of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, rejected any "relativistic" view based on Schwarzenegger's electability. "He may be a better fiscal conservative than Gray Davis but that doesn't mean that the Eagle Forum has to put its name on [his campaign]," Waters told Salon Monday. "We are pretty firm in supporting social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, but you've got to be both."

It's what comes after that matters, counters Allen. If Schwarzenegger wins, she says, he will surround himself with more traditional Republican aides and appointees -- perhaps like the team of aides and advisors to former Gov. Pete Wilson that Schwarzenegger has hired for his campaign -- who will understand the interests of the party's more conservative members. And then, when the next legislative election comes, Schwarzenegger can push voters to send him Republican legislators with whom he can work.

But that only happens if Arnie wins. And to win, he is going to have to prove to voters that he's serious -- a credible leader, not just a comic book action hero -- and he is going to have to survive the intense scrutiny that comes with a political campaign. That's where even forgiving Republicans like Allen begin to express doubts. They have heard rumors about Schwarzenegger, and the whispers make them nervous.

In March 2001, Premiere magazine ran a feature titled "Arnold the Barbarian" which chronicled allegations of what the magazine called his "boorish" sexual behavior. According to the magazine, the actor has a penchant for groping at the breasts of women who are not his wife -- including a fellow star and crew member during the filming of "Terminator 2" in 1991 and three different female talk-show hosts he encountered during a single day of hyping a film in late 2000.

The Premiere story also quoted an unnamed source who claimed to have walked in on Schwarzenegger performing oral sex on a woman in his trailer during the filming of the 1996 film "Eraser." "When we opened the door to his trailer, Arnold was giving oral sex to a woman," Premiere quoted the source as saying. "He looked up and, with that accent, said very slowly, 'Eating is not cheating.'"

Schwarzenegger has denied the allegations, but not always in ways most becoming to a would-be politician. He told the Weekly Standard last year, for instance, that he was not so "stupid" as to be caught "eating a chick in the living room" of his trailer.

While Republicans may be able to suck it up when it comes to Schwarzenegger's political views, they may have a harder time with the allegations, and the actor's attitude about them, particularly if it becomes clear that any hi-jinks occurred in the recent past. "In the last few years, has he been doing anything like that?" asked Chuck Devore, a conservative Republican currently running for the California Assembly. "If he has, he will run into some trouble."

Allen agreed. "I don't know whether he has done these things," she said. "I believe about half of what I read. I would hope that if it's true, it's behavior that's a long time ago and that it has stopped." Allen began to compare the allegations against Schwarzenegger to the ones that led House Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton. She caught herself before going too far. "One can make a distinction of location, of the White House and an aide under your jurisdiction and control. But it's still inappropriate behavior."

Davis' political team circulated the Premiere article to reporters in 2002 when it appeared that Schwarzenegger was thinking about running for governor. While Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno last week that he expects his opponents will use such stories against him now that he's in the recall race, at least one prominent Democrat has publicly warned Davis against running a "puke" campaign to save himself. Thus, California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland is downplaying the dirt for now -- sort of.

"We're not getting into it," Mulholland told Salon last week. "In any campaign, you have to decide where your resources are going to go. We'll let the tabloids do the work. We'll leave it to them, but we'll add some gasoline to the fire."

In the meantime, the White House will have to tread carefully into the recall race. While Schwarzenegger is the frontrunner now, the field has been set for only a few days, and things could change quickly as the Republican contenders begin to cannibalize support from one another. Already, the knives are out: In a Web site put up so fast that most of it is unfinished, the operative who directed the Rescue California recall drive is warning Californians against the "sexist playboy." Bush may want to wait until the picture sorts itself out, before tying himself too tightly to any one candidate. The Bush team got burned the last time it involved itself in California politics, and many believe Rove and company will be wary about jumping in too soon this time. After Bush said that Schwarzenegger would be a good governor Friday, a White House aide reportedly took pains to make it clear that the statement wasn't an official endorsement.

"It sounds to me like he's testing the waters," Devore said of Bush's seemingly off-the-cuff comments about Schwarzenegger. "The next thing you're going to see is an incremental gauging of the opinions of the party faithful, a cautious observation of the campaign trail -- is this guy capable of rising to the top?"

No doubt, the White House will also be watching to see how the rumors and allegations about Schwarzenegger resolve themselves -- and how they play with constituencies important to the president's reelection in 2004. Says Mulholland: "They don't want to be standing next to him if another Premiere article is coming out."

A related question, of course, is whether Schwarzenegger wants to be standing too closely to Bush in California. Schwarzenegger aides did not return calls for comment on this story. But at least some political observers wonder whether Schwarzenegger will be better off if Bush stays out of the recall race entirely; Bush's presence could remind Democrats of the recall's partisan birth and drive them to vote it down. "I think a Bush endorsement could be a kiss of death in California because it's a Democratic state," former Clinton strategist Dick Morris told Salon Monday. "The more the partisan theme underscores the race, the worse it will be for Schwarzenegger."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Dick Morris George W. Bush Matt Drudge Rush Limbaugh