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Arnold Dons Dems' Clothing

The question in November's gubernatorial race isn't whether Republicans will turn out for their candidate, but whether Democrats will turn out for theirs.
 
 
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Nearly a year ago, Democrats were licking their chops at the prospect of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sacramento swan song.

At the time, his re-election seemed hopeless. He had just gotten his political clock cleaned on an ill-timed and ill-fated special election. His campaign chest had shriveled. Labor unions were riding high on a surge of anti-Arnold clamor, and they plainly hankered to slice off more of his political scalp. The state's Democrats were flush with cash, seemed more united than ever, and a crushing majority of the state's voters were Democrats.

But those who crowed over Schwarzenegger's demise forgot one thing. The election was still a year away, and in politics, that's an eternity. Much could and would happen in that time. And, it has. Arnold has become a better Democrat than the Democrats.

The rub is that he's done it with the connivance of the Democrats in Sacramento.

In recent weeks, the governor has agreed to a radical plan to cap greenhouse emissions. He has signed off on a multi billion-dollar bond measure. He has approved a big hike in the minimum wage. He's OK'd a substantial increase in wages and benefits for state employees. He's tooled around to black churches, where he rocked and swayed to gospel songs. He refused to send National Guard troops to the border, did a public mea culpa for backing the anti-illegal immigrant initiative Proposition 187 in 1994, and hobnobbed with top Latino activists at the National Council of La Raza Convention in July.

All of this has ignited the fury of conservative Republicans, who respond with taunts of "sellout."

Is Arnold's new Democratic-friendly stance a case of crass political pandering, shrewd politics or bowing to the political realities? It's all of the above. The two cardinal axioms of politics are: A politician does whatever it takes to win; and, Don't believe the polls.

California Democrats, in their premature glee at Arnold's anticipated tumble, forgot a few things. The same polls that reamed Schwarzenegger a few months back also showed that voters thought even less of the state Legislature -- and the Democrats who control it.

Also, while much was made of Schwarzenegger's momentary in-the-tank popularity ratings, no poll showed any Democrat beating him. State Treasurer Phil Angelides has done his best to hurdle these formidable barriers, but with the election only weeks away, he's still the X man with many voters. And judging from the Democrats' delirium at getting pretty much whatever they wanted from Schwarzenegger in Sacramento these last few

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months, it's even less likely that the party will rush to the barricades for Angelides.

But Arnold's newfound role as the state's pre-eminent Democrat puts Republicans in a bind. A GOP governor who spends freely, regulates happily and takes a soft approach to immigration is surely not what they had in mind when they recalled Gray Davis back in 2003.

Yet even though many Republicans continue to grumble that Schwarzenegger is giving away the company store, come Election Day, they'll close ranks behind him. They really have no choice.

Republicans make up less than 40 percent of the state's voters. The prospect of having a Democrat back in the driver's seat -- and no Republican to check against the Legislature -- is unthinkable to them. Single-party, Democratic rule would also seriously erode Republicans' political bargaining power.

Plus there's the issue of money. Schwarzenegger remains the consummate political cash cow for Republicans. The party couldn't survive without his ability to bring in the big bucks.

The question in November's gubernatorial race isn't whether Republicans will turn out for their candidate, but whether Democrats will turn out for theirs. By donning Democrat's clothing, Schwarzenegger has effectively stolen the "I'm a real alternative to Arnie" thunder away from Angelides. With Republicans desperate to hold on to power, he has lost little, while gaining much, by going to the left.

No matter what the polls say and what the pundits tell us the polls mean, elections invariably hinge on whether the economy is in good shape, and whether voters believe the person they elected last time will make sure it stays that way. If the answer is yes to both, then they won't make a change.

That's especially true if the incumbent says and does the things that his opponent claims he, too, would do if elected. So far Schwarzenegger -- Republican in affiliation, Democratic in policy -- has said and done the right things.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.