Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Schwarzenegger keeps low profile in presidential race

SACRAMENTO — As Arizona Sen. John McCain has waged his uphill campaign for the presidency, one of the Republican Party's best known and most charismatic politicians has stood largely on the sidelines: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bogged down by the state's budget crisis and increasingly repelled by partisanship as he promotes his brand of centrist politics, Schwarzenegger has limited his involvement in the presidential campaign to his January endorsement and a handful of public appearances with the nominee since then.

Schwarzenegger has not aggressively raised money for McCain; earlier this month he skipped a rally in Southern California featuring McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; and at one point suggested that he'd be open to serving in a Barack Obama administration.

Schwarzenegger says his low profile in the presidential race is for good reason: He's been consumed by his duties as governor, a particularly demanding job given the state's financial problems of late.

The budget impasse prompted Schwarzenegger to cancel his prime-time speaking slot at the Republican convention last month. And since then, he has zeroed in on his campaign for a statewide redistricting initiative, Proposition 11, that he believes would produce a less polarized Legislature.

"The schedule has been very hectic," said Adam Mendelsohn, a political adviser to Schwarzenegger. "The governor is a strong supporter of Sen. McCain, Advertisementand we're talking to the campaign about ways he can be helpful."

Still, some observers believe Schwarzenegger's near absence from the race partly is part political calculation. California is solidly in the Democratic column, so campaigning for McCain here wouldn't help deliver the state. McCain's sizable gap in the polls provides even less incentive to get involved.

Where Schwarzenegger could be of use, some observers believe, is in raising money for McCain and campaigning outside the state, where he is still known as the popular action hero.

Schwarzenegger joined a raucous campaign rally for George W. Bush in Ohio shortly before the 2004 election, and it remains to be seen whether he will make a similar swing-state trip for McCain this year.

While the governor has appeared at four McCain fundraisers in California this year, Schwarzenegger has been focused on raising money for his own redistricting proposal, Proposition 11. He hosted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week in Los Angeles at a rally and fundraisers for the initiative, then traveled to Florida to raise more money for Proposition 11.

"He could raise a lot of money for McCain if he wanted to, but there's no sign he's doing that," said Mike Schroeder, former chairman of the California Republican Party.

"The governor has his own fundraising needs right now with Prop. 11," , said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist and former Schwarzenegger aide. "It's reasonable to expect that to be his top priority."

After endorsing the GOP nominee and appearing at a McCain rally in Los Angeles on the eve of the February presidential primary, Schwarzenegger has appeared publicly with McCain three times in the state. The governor has never wavered from his endorsement, but at the same time he has spoken highly of Democratic rival Obama.

And in an interview with ABC News, he did not rule out the possibility of serving in an Obama administration as energy czar — an idea floated by the Democratic nominee.

Schwarzenegger said afterward that his response to a question — that he would "take his call" if Obama approached him — was overblown by the media.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger's muted presence in the presidential race seems to reflect his growing aversion to partisan politics. After an embarrassing defeat in 2005 campaigning for a slate of conservative ballot measures, Schwarzenegger has fashioned himself as a "post-partisan" who's willing to embrace ideas from either party, even if it means offending fellow Republicans.

While that approach has had its limitations in the hyperpartisan Legislature — Republicans remain incensed about Schwarzenegger's push for universal health care and a tax increase to close the state's deficit — Schwarzenegger has continued to hew to the political center. And he's hinted that he feels out of place among party die-hards.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel this summer, the governor suggested he didn't lose sleep over missing the Republican convention. Such gatherings draw "the most hard-core individuals," he said. "There's no celebration in any convention of bipartisanship."

It's also true that as Schwarzenegger looks beyond the end of his term in 2010, his future may well reside outside the realm of party politics, or at least the Republican Party. His signature achievement as governor is a first-of-its-kind plan to curb global warming, not exactly an issue associated with the GOP.

If he wants to continue to work on environmental issues after leaving office, a high-profile role on behalf of the Republican nominee may not serve his interests.

"Arnold is a shrewd calculator," said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, "and it's hard to see how he comes out ahead by tying himself to McCain."

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