Source AP ©

Wishful Schwarzenegger shadows the presidential race

Watching the action from the wings is not in Arnold Schwarzenegger's blood.

With the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign already fully engaged - and the foreign-born actor-turned-politician constitutionally barred from running himself - Schwarzenegger is finding ways to play a role in politics' biggest drama.

He has elevated his status in the contest by signing a bill shifting the primary in California, where he is governor, from June to Feb. 5, a move that is expected to force candidates to campaign in the state rather than just swoop in to raise money.

And he plans to travel to other early primary states to give speeches.

Voters are so disenchanted with President George W. Bush that many seem hungry for an outsider candidate like Schwarzenegger. He was one of the few Republicans to win re-election easily last November and, had he been born in the U.S. instead of Austria, he would be a natural contender in a wide-open presidential race.

"I think it is an unprecedented position," said Peter Schrag, a specialist on California politics. "Probably next to the president, he's the best-known politician in the country."

Matthew Baum, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, adds: "It would be a great year for him, because he is one of those Republicans who has distanced himself from the current administration."

So far, Schwarzenegger has kept everyone guessing about his intentions. The presence of two candidates with whom he is friendly and has much in common politically - Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani - complicates matters.

Schwarzenegger yearns to play a larger role than just endorsing a candidate. He wants to influence the presidential debate on issues such as global warming and health care, which he has addressed in the face of federal inaction.

During the primary, the leading Republican candidates will be scrambling to appeal to party's base - conservative voters whose views on many issues, from abortion to gay rights, are at odds with Schwarzenegger's.

"To get the nomination, they're having to move away from who they are and move away from what Arnold represents," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. "One of the reasons why Arnold is so popular right now is because he's anti-Bush."

As a shadow candidate for president whose goal is to win attention, Schwarzenegger has been highly effective. The New York Times recently lauded him for "saving the Republican Party from being totally dominated by climate cranks" who deny global warming.

Lou Cannon, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, said that as a politician who cannot run for president, Schwarzenegger has a fantasy appeal to the national media.

"He's very safe," Cannon said. "You'll never have to write about what Arnold does in office, because he'll never be in office. He's one of those lovely might-have-beens."

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