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Schwarzenegger Candidacy Attracts Attention to California Governor Race - 2003-08-09

Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger's surprise decision this week to run for governor of California is a reminder that Hollywood celebrities have often been drawn to political office in the so-called "Golden State." "Ahnold", as he is known to his fans, hopes to follow in the footsteps of California's most famous actor turned politician, Ronald Reagan.

One of his best known movie roles was as the Terminator. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to end the political career of California Governor Gray Davis and claim the governor's office for himself.

But unlike his movie roles, Arnold Schwarzenegger will have to audition for this one, something he says he is ready to do.

"They said we cannot pronounce your name, you cannot speak English well and your body is overdeveloped," he said. "And you know what happened? I became the highest paid entertainer in the world. OK?"

The Schwarzenegger candidacy is dominating U.S. political news and has even caught the attention of President Bush.

"As I say, I am interested in the process," said president Bush. "It is fascinating to see who is in and who is out and yeah, I think he would be a good governor."

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the latest in a series of Hollywood actors looking to make the move from the sound stage to the political stage.

Perhaps the best known example is Ronald Reagan. The former movie actor won the California's governor's race in 1966 and 14 years later was elected president of the United States.

David Lightman is Washington Bureau Chief for the Hartford Courant newspaper and a regular guest on VOA's "Issues in the News" program. He sees some parallels between Ronald Reagan's climb to power and the attempt now being made by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I mean, look, he is a smart man and he certainly has the acumen, the people skills," he said. "Does he know enough about California and its budgeting? Well, no. But did Ronald Reagan know much about California and its budgeting in 1966 when he was elected governor without ever having held public office? Celebrity gets you noticed. Celebrity gives you a leg up, so to speak, on other candidates. Far more people probably know Arnold Schwarzenegger than know, say, the Lieutenant Governor of California, Cruz Bustamante, who is also in this race."

Some political analysts believe the Schwarzenegger candidacy will spark interest among voters who are usually turned off by politics. Mark DeCamillo is director of the Field Poll in California.

"Schwarzenegger starts out with attractiveness to unusual voting blocs, the younger voters, the ethnic minority voters, the less well educated voters," he said. "But usually those are not the people who go to vote."

Others warn that the actor-turned-politician could be in for a tough time as political rivals and journalists begin to demand specifics about what he will do if elected governor.

Television talk show host Jerry Springer, who this week decided against a run for a Senate seat in Ohio, says voters will demand more than vague promises as the campaign heats up for California's October 7 recall vote.

"You know, what celebrity does is that it gets people 'into the tent', it gets you the audience," said Jerry Springer. "But once you have their attention, then you have to be really good on the issues, you have to be able to relate to the concerns of the people who are going to go out and vote."

Other observers see the Schwarzenegger bid as following in the footsteps of professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who capitalized on disgruntled voters to capture the Minnesota governorship in 1998.

Combine that with the early success of little-known Howard Dean in the Democratic presidential race and some analysts see a new trend in American politics.

Once again, David Lightman of the Hartford Courant.

"We are getting into these non-traditional ways of making political stars," said David Lightman. "We saw it with [former Minnesota Governor Jesse] Ventura, we are seeing it with [Democratic presidential candidate Howard] Dean. You can make the case that we are going to see it again with Schwarzenegger."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with this trend.

"I think it proves that in terms of pop culture, there is no strong, bright line between our politics and our pop culture and personally, I find that rather unfortunate," said Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, on VOA's "Talk to America". "But I think that is the nature of politics these days."

Many political analysts say, with his high name recognition and California Democrats in disarray, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a good chance to win the governor's race should the voters oust Gray Davis on October 7.

But Arnold Schwarzenegger's political success may depend on which of his famous film roles California voters identify him more with Terminator or Conan the Barbarian.