Reading the Schwarzenegger tea leaves

Not so long ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger was mentioned as a formidable potential challenger to Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. But California’s Governor has lost much of his appeal in recent months - and there is every reason to believe that his approval rating will continue heading south. Already, two recent surveys (one by Rasmussen, the other by the Field Poll) found him trailing massively in potential match-ups against Boxer; worse still, Rasmussen found businesswoman Carly Fiorina polling better against the Senator than Schwarzenegger did.

This means that the prospect of Schwarzenegger’s candidacy no longer scares Democrats - and it has also changed the conventional wisdom: Over the past few weeks, people have tended to assume that Schwarzenegger would stay out of the Senate race and concentrate his energy on improving his gubernatorial performance.

Yet, a recent San Fransisco Chronicle article suggests Schwarzenegger is leaving the door open to challenging Boxer. “I’m concentrating on [all the stuff I'm doing now] and not what I’m going to do next,” he said. Indeed, the Governor is currently campaigning in favor of propositions he has put on the May 19th special election ballot. And he has been developing an increasingly warm relationship with Barack Obama, leading some to wonder what game Schwarzenegger is playing.

Over the week-end, the Governor defended Obama over the President’s joke on Special Olympics. Earlier in the week, he had showered praise on Obama’s economic policies, heralding the President’s “great leadership” at a common event the two men held during Obama’s trip to California. “I’m partnering with the White House and doing everything that we can to get the U.S. economy and the California economy back on track,” Schwarzenegger said. And in comments that are sure to infuriate conservatives, he added: “The economic stimulus package that President Obama has put together, California is benefiting tremendously from that. I tell you, it is the greatest package.”

Following the Governor on stage, Obama addressed this blossoming love fest. “I was hoping the governor was going to take a little longer on his remarks because I was standing outside soaking up some rays,” he said - before proceeding to praise the Republican right back. Obama called Schwarzenegger “one of the great innovators of state government, somebody who has been leading California through some very difficult times.” If Schwarzenegger does run for Senate in 2010, expect Obama’s quote to make it in his campaign advertisement.

How should we read Schwarzenegger’s efforts to embrace Obama? Many commentators are arguing that they signal the Governor’s determination to mount a federal run in 2010, but things cannot be that simple. Sure, Schwarzenegger will need to both improve his approval ratings and bolster his moderate credentials if he wants to defeat an incumbent Democratic Senator in such a blue state. And what better way to do that than to tie yourself to a popular Democratic President and to his new liberal economic policies?

Yet, California’s Republican electorate is conservative, and these voters massively distrust their own party’s Governor. As long as another Republican seeks to challenge Boxer - and Fiorina is said to be eying a run - Schwarzenegger will be in for a brutal contest in which he might very well be the underdog - especially if he continues embracing Obama and praising the stimulus. Schwarzenegger has to know that he stands little chance to win a contested Senate primary if he keeps up such rhetoric, so would he go this far in the Democrats’ direction if he truly intended to take on Boxer?

If you have any doubt that the stimulus bill will play a major role in 2010 primaries, consider that Governor Rick Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (who are expected to face off in Texas’s gubernatorial primary) are already treading barbs on the subject. Sure, the relatively moderate Hutchison is the one who is going on the offensive, blasting Perry for being one of the country’s few Governors to turn down some of the stimulus money. “I would hope he is looking for innovative ways not to dock the taxpayers of Texas with $555 million turned down,” Hutchison said.

That Hutchison is accusing Perry of excessive conservatism might suggest that Schwarzenegger has some cover for praising the stimulus, but there is a huge difference between Schwarzenegger’s statement that this is the “greatest package” and Hutchison’s position: The Texas Senator voted against the stimulus bill, and she made no effort to be part of the gang of moderates who were seeking a compromise. That gives her enough cover to criticize Perry without passing for a pro-stimulus centrist.

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