Image: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jim Wilson / Ap File
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other officials walk next to a burned home at Lake Arrowhead, Calif., on Oct. 23. Schwarzenegger used the crisis to emphasize at every turn that government was there to help relieve people's misery.
updated 10/29/2007 7:14:32 PM ET 2007-10-29T23:14:32

The crowd roared its approval over the weekend as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tossed the coin to start the San Diego Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium, which just days earlier had been an emergency shelter for thousands of people driven from their homes by raging wildfires.

Schwarzenegger appears to have gotten a powerful boost in public approval from his reassuring and highly visible handling of the biggest crisis to hit his administration.

Still, given that Schwarzenegger is a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, many analysts doubt this outpouring of affection will enable him to resuscitate his plan for universal health care or get his way on some of his other bogged-down legislative projects.

The disaster did play to the celebrity governor’s strength for connecting with people and his taste for decisive action.

Schwarzenegger appeared nonstop on television, comforting fire victims and bucking up their exhausted rescuers. He chaperoned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and President Bush while they got a look at the destruction. During a tour of Qualcomm at the peak of the crisis, he said he had made sure that evacuees had baby food and toilet paper.

There was a festive atmosphere at Qualcomm when Schwarzenegger arrived for a visit to the evacuation center last week. Evacuees seemed more star-struck than desperate. When the governor swept by, they pulled out their camera phones and hooted to get his attention.

Analysts said the former action hero instinctively understood the drama of the moment and projected optimism and calm.

“I think people find him a reassuring figure who does a good job at speaking directly to the news media,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant. “He has a sense of what to do in these situations.”

Ultimate testing ground
Disasters, both manmade and natural, are a leader’s ultimate testing ground. They can remake someone’s image — as the Sept. 11 attacks did for Rudy Giuliani — or destroy it, as Hurricane Katrina did to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

The disaster that California faced was far less severe, with at least seven deaths blamed directly on the fire, an estimated 2,000 homes burned and half a million people evacuated from their homes. But Schwarzenegger used the crisis to emphasize at every turn that government was there to help relieve people’s misery.

“America’s cities and states have learned from mistakes that were made in the past,” Schwarzenegger said a week ago at Qualcomm Stadium, drawing a contrast to the chaos that ensued after Katrina. “I will be relentless all the way through this.”

California’s response to the disaster has generally been regarded as good. But there have been tough questions about why certain firefighting planes and helicopters remained on the ground, as well as whether the state and local agencies had all the equipment and firefighters they needed.

Analysts said that may eventually bring Schwarzenegger down a bit from the highs he enjoyed in the fire’s immediate aftermath.

“He’s a movie actor; he understands symbolism very well,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant. “But I think, beyond that, there’s going to be a lot of questions about whether the state was prepared for this kind of wildfire emergency.”

High approval ratings
In a poll in September, 50 percent of Californians approved of the way he was doing his job. That was down slightly from when he was re-elected last November, but for a California governor — and especially a Republican one — that was considered high. No polls on his popularity have been done since the fires broke out more than a week ago.

What he could do with this newfound affection is unclear. His term runs through 2010, and he cannot run for re-election. He has not said what he plans to do next.

The governor’s health reform plan is on life support ,and his proposal to shore up the state’s aging water system also is stalled. Analysts said those logjams are likely to persist.

“Legislators aren’t going to change their minds about health care reform just because he put a lot of work into the wildfire,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

“But in the public mind, it enhances his reputation. It’s one of the things people expect from a chief executive. On a lesser scale, he’s getting the kind of boost that Giuliani got from 9/11.”

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