As his latest movie, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," continues to crush its competition at the box office this summer, Hollywood megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger is mulling whether to enter the daunting world of politics. The Austrian-born bodybuilder-turned-actor is considering running for governor of California, where Democratic Governor Gray Davis is under fire because of a huge state budget deficit. Schwarzenegger's interest has already prompted the media to dub him "The Governator."
Prague, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Desire may be irrelevant to the robot character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the latest installment of the "Terminator" saga, "T3: Rise of the Machines." But for the 56-year old Austrian-born megastar, ambition is everything.
With his acting career reborn by "T3's" impressive earnings during its first week in U.S. movie theaters -- more than $72 million -- Schwarzenegger is now considering whether to make a move into politics.
At stake is the job of governor of the western U.S. state of California. Democratic incumbent Gray Davis is facing a Republican-driven recall campaign, which, if successful, would lead to a statewide ballot to decide whether to remove him.
Voters are angry over a budget deficit estimated at $38 billion as well as a widespread energy crisis. Davis' approval rating is down to 21 percent, the lowest ever for a California governor.
Schwarzenegger has been active in the Republican Party for years despite being married to Maria Shriver, a member of the famous Kennedy family, who are well-known as liberal Democrats.
Schwarzenegger's political sympathies have prompted some of his critics to call him "Conan the Republican," an allusion to one of his earlier roles as Conan the Barbarian.
So far, the star has declined to say definitively whether he will step in the race in case of a recall. But he has made no secret of his fondness for the job -- or of his dislike for Davis' performance. He has said that if the state needs him, and if there's no one he thinks is better, he will run.
But does the former Mr. Olympia, regarded as the greatest bodybuilder of all time, have the political muscle to make a credible candidate?
Professor Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley University of California, told RFE/RL he believes he does: "There is a good chance that he would be a credible candidate if he were to put his name forward, and how he performs in that role would determine whether or not he is successful -- and that is something we don't know much about because Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been in this kind of situation before. But the reason that he could be a credible candidate is that he has a lot of name recognition in a state which has basically media-driven politics. He has a very experienced campaign team that previously had advised Governor Pete Wilson in the early 1990s. He has worked on a statewide proposition. And he is positioning himself as a moderate Republican, which is something the Republican Party badly needs."
Schwarzenegger's movie career had been flagging over the past several years due to a string of flops and medical problems, including heart surgery and injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash. In the meantime, he has been active in a number of personal causes that have helped to change his tough-guy screen image.
He led a successful ballot initiative last year in favor of state funding for before- and after-school activities, which won praise from both Republicans and Democrats, and he has been promoting sports activities for disabled people.
Still, Cain notes, Schwarzenegger has no real political experience: "He has literally no experience running in a partisan campaign before. And one of the questions that everybody asks is, once he gets into this race, [how will he handle] the bruising 30-second TV ads that sort of go after him on aspects of his personal life or his positions? They can be very difficult, psychologically, for a new candidate to handle. And we do not know whether Arnold's ready for that, whether he is psychologically prepared for the kind of brutal campaign that the Democrats will run against him, and whether once he sees that kind of negative response, whether he'll stay in it or whether he'll withdraw."
But Schwarzenegger has always been ambitious. As a young boy in his native Austria, and later in the U.S., he steadily pursued a goal and turned himself into the greatest bodybuilder in the world.
But that was not enough for him, as he had his eyes set on Hollywood. He first made his way to "Tinseltown" thanks to impressive physique but became a megastar due in large part to the title role in James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi classic "The Terminator."
Politics, many people say, is simply the next logical step for Schwarzenegger, who became a U.S. citizen in 1983.
Actors and showbiz personalities are no strangers to politics in the U.S. -- from the most famous case of Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-California-governor-turned-president, to the likes of Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor of a California town, or crooner Sonny Bono, who was elected to the U.S. Congress.
Journalist John Vinocur of the "International Herald Tribune," based in Paris, says this is due to a different mentality in the U.S., where actors are more open to public financial scrutiny than in Europe.
"In the United States, there's much more public scrutiny of all questions involving money," Vinocur said. "So you've got to have a certain mentality as a [Ronald] Reagan, or a Clint Eastwood, who after all was mayor of his [Californian] town [of Carmel], or now someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who'd have to be comfortable in laying out all his possessions for public view, because people are interested in that. It's not the case in Europe. I don't know at all of any European showbiz personality who would be happy opening his books to the scrutiny of potential electors."
In Austria, many people still regard Schwarzenegger, a Graz native, as just a bodybuilder, according to Austrian journalist Thomas Vieregge of the Viennese daily "Die Presse."
Furthermore, Vieregge told RFE/RL, in a conservative country such as Austria, a showbiz personality would not stand a chance of running for a prominent political job.
"My guess would be that such an entertainer or film star would, let's say, run for a mandate. You know, not for the chairmanship of a party, but for a mandate. I could imagine that, as well. It would be possible, of course, but not for the top job. I mean, not for president, not for prime minister, not for [regional] governor."
The "IHT's" Vinocur points to the fact that in Europe artists have traditionally held leftist views, more or less opposed to the political establishment.
"Essentially, people in entertainment and in culture in Europe have been mostly associated with the left. In the United States, where the attitude goes one more time to money, where people do not hate people who have made money honestly, nobody holds it against Clint Eastwood, who's an enormously popular person of modest origins in the United States, because he's enormously rich. And if he ran for president, my goodness, I don't think people would dislike him so much. So there's [both] right and left within the cultural and showbiz communities in the United States. In other words, people coming from culture and showbiz who are on both sides of the center, as opposed to the situation in Europe."
Observers say Schwarzenegger is still waiting to see whether the campaign to recall Davis will be successful. The effort needs 12 percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial poll -- that is, almost 900,000 valid signatures. Republicans say they already have 1.4 million signatures, but that remains to be verified by election officials. If the recall is successful, an election must be held within 60 to 80 days.
In such a case, voters will be asked two questions: whether to remove the governor, and which candidate they want on the ballot instead. The only declared major-party candidate so far is California Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, who is funding the recall campaign.
Schwarzenegger must now decide whether to pursue a starring role in a possible "Terminator 4" or in a real-life political "Total Recall."
Either way, Schwarzenegger can afford to wait. But not before warning, as in his most famous one-liner: "I'll be back."