If there's one storyline that nearly all Americans can appreciate, it's the comeback.
We see it in our films ("The Natural," "Star Wars"), our sports (the 1992-93 Buffalo Bills, the 2004 Red Sox), our history (the Texan victory after the Alamo, the Pacific theater in World War II), and -- especially -- our politics.
Take Harry Truman's come-from-behind victory over Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. Or Richard Nixon's two presidential wins in 1968 and 1972, after losing his 1960 bid and his race for governor two years later. Or the political triumphs by the ultimate Comeback Kid -- Bill Clinton -- after Gennifer Flowers, his administration's health-care debacle, and his impeachment.
Come next month, however, Clinton might need to share that title with Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In what has to be the political turnaround of the (very young) century, Schwarzenegger -- who went down to spectacular defeat in his special election last year and saw his poll numbers plummet as a result -- seems poised to easily win re-election.
Indeed, despite predictions a year ago that his race would be one of the nation's most competitive contests, recent polls show him leading Democratic opponent Phil Angelides anywhere from 10 to 17 points.
Analysts explain that Schwarzenegger's apparent comeback, which comes in a difficult political environment for Republicans, can be attributed to an improving state economy, his move back to the political center, and his opponent's struggling campaign. But perhaps more than anything else, they say, it's due to his ability to learn from his mistakes.
"This isn't a guy who did a sequel to the 'Last Action Hero,'" noted Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "He has a very good sense of what works and what doesn't. He doesn't repeat mistakes."
His special election mistake
Schwarzenegger's mistake, of course, was embarking on last year's special election. After winning office in the bizarre California recall of 2003, he promised to work with Democrats in this Democratic-leaning state, and he largely achieved that in his first year as governor. But after that success, he called for a special election, backing four ballot propositions. They would have curbed state spending, redrawn the state's political map, lengthened the time needed for teachers to earn tenure, and required unions to get their members' consent before using their money for political reasons.
Yet teachers, unions, and Democrats saw the ballot measures as direct attacks on them. They fought back and defeated all of them (Democrats, after all, greatly outnumber Republicans in California). Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger's political standing took a nosedive.
A month before the special election, a California Field Poll showed his approval rating at just 37 percent (down from a high of 65 percent the year before) and him trailing Angelides in a hypothetical match up among likely voters by six points. There was even some speculation Schwarzenegger might not run for re-election, despite an earlier pledge to seek a second term.
Returning to the middle
But after his defeat, Schwarzenegger quickly veered to the political center. He apologized for the special election, installed a Democrat as his chief of staff, and later said his previous support for the 1994 anti-illegal immigrant Prop. 187 was wrong.
He also struck agreements with the Legislature on measures that Democrats tend to favor -- like capping greenhouse gases, raising the minimum wage, and lowering prescription drug costs for the uninsured. "People are forgiving of politicians who do what they want them to do," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
Matthew Dowd, the Schwarzenegger campaign's chief strategist, explains that the governor is at his best as a bridge-builder. "People now say, 'That's the Arnold we know and want.'"
But the Angelides campaign insists that the Arnold in the middle isn't the real Arnold. "Because Arnold Schwarzenegger is an actor, he ends up somehow pretending to be a Democrat," said Angelides spokesman Dan Newman.
Another thing that has seemed to help Schwarzenegger has been the Democrats. Back in June, Angelides and Democratic rival Steve Westly competed in a divisive primary in which Westly hammered Angelides for his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy. Claremont McKenna College's Pitney says that tough primaries don't usually hurt a party. "[But] this one hurt because Team Schwarzenegger immediately started to pick up Westly's attacks."
In fact, Angelides' plan to raise taxes on the rich (he also wants to cut taxes for the middle class) has been the subject of Schwarzenegger's TV ads and his best line during their debate earlier this month. "I can tell that the joy you see in your eyes when you talk about taxes, you just love to increase taxes," he told Angelides. "Look out there right now and just say, 'I love increasing your taxes.'"
But critics say the Democrats' struggles have to do with more than a bitter primary; they also include Angelides, who so far has failed to catch fire with voters. "Angelides is probably the worst candidate we could have chosen," said one plugged-in Democratic aide working the Legislature. "He has run a terrible campaign... The biggest roadblock is really him."
Arnold's own challenges
To be sure, Schwarzenegger's re-election bid hasn't been all smooth sailing. He was caught on audiotape saying that Puerto Rican and Cuban women have a "very hot" temperament due to a mixture of "black blood" and "Latino blood" -- the latest in a series of insensitive remarks the governor has made. He later apologized.
Also, Democrats have blasted Schwarzenegger for his enthusiastic endorsement in 2004 of President Bush, whose popularity is particularly low in California. One ad by the state Democratic Party goes, "Arnold Schwarzenegger's for George W. Bush. Is he for you?" (On NBC's Tonight Show last week, the former action star quipped, "To link me to George Bush is like linking me to an Oscar.")
And most recently, the Angelides campaign has seized on Schwarzenegger's comment in the debate that the failed initiatives in last year's special election contained "some good ideas." Newman, the campaign's spokesman, believes that comment will help resurrect the Arnold of 2005 to voters. "What part of 'no' does Arnold Schwarzenegger not understand?"
Schwarzenegger's entire comment at the debate, however, revealed someone who had learned from his mistake. "I pushed too fast," he said of the special election. "There were good ideas there, but I did not bring all the legislators on board. I didn't bring people together enough, and therefore the thing failed. But I leaned my lesson from that."
"You're not going to see Schwarzenegger bring the same measures back to the ballot the next chance he gets," Pitney says. "He got the message."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.