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Pitfalls, opportunities for Schwarzenegger

At this critical moment in his political career, the battle over gay marriage is not something Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to get involved in.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been drawn into a culture war he had hoped to avoid.Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS
/ Source: The Associated Press

At this critical moment in his political career, the battle over gay marriage is not something Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to get involved in.

The new governor has tried to stay focused on keeping Republicans and Democrats together to solve California’s financial crisis, and he has a key test of his leadership on Tuesday, when his proposal to borrow $15 billion on the bond market goes before the voters.

But with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defying state law by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples and President Bush wanting to change the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, Schwarzenegger has been drawn into a culture war he had hoped to avoid.

“This is an issue he’d prefer to go away,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “He doesn’t need it at this moment in time when he’s trying to create a bipartisan coalition to address fiscal problems. He doesn’t need a divisive cultural issue.”

Reflecting, perhaps, the political dangers and complexities of the gay marriage issue, Schwarzenegger has sent mixed messages: He ordered California’s attorney general to take “immediate steps” to stop the parade of gay weddings in San Francisco, but has done nothing to reinforce that directive. Then, he declined to endorse Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment.

Political analyst Allan Hoffenblum said Schwarzenegger’s stand reflects the governor’s own mixed views.

“He’s not advocating putting anyone in jail and not advocating a constitutional amendment,” Hoffenblum said. “What he’s done is appropriate and reflects what he believes.”

Whether the approach is working is questionable: An independent Field Poll released Tuesday showed just 39 percent of California voters approving of Schwarzenegger’s handling of the gay-marriage issue, while 42 percent disapproved.

Some strategists say Schwarzenegger’s response may amount to a clever political sleight of hand that could pay off handsomely later, since polls also show that while 50 percent of Californians do not favor gay marriage, 54 percent are opposed to changing the constitution to ban them.

Moreover, by putting the responsibility on Attorney General Bill Lockyer — a Democrat and likely candidate for governor in 2006 — Schwarzenegger has made his political rival the lightning rod for criticism by activists on both sides.

Schwarzenegger does support civil unions for same-sex couples, as well as gay adoption rights. As long ago as 1977, Schwarzenegger told an interviewer he could identify with the discrimination gays faced.

“Gay people are fighting the same kind of stereotyping that bodybuilders are,” the former bodybuilding champion told Oui magazine.

Conservatives wary of Schwarzenegger’s moderate politics have praised his forcefulness in ordering Lockyer to stop the marriages. When Schwarzenegger announced the directive at the state’s GOP convention, he drew a standing ovation from party activists.

“There’s definitely nothing but cheers on that,” said Rev. Lou Sheldon, a conservative activist and frequent critic of Schwarzenegger’s during the recall campaign. “He did the right thing, and it’s a big plus for him.”

Schwarzenegger has stayed away from making moral judgments. But he was criticized by Democrats for raising the rhetoric in a nationally televised interview, when he warned of anarchy and deadly consequences if the marriages were not stopped.

“All of a sudden we see riots and we see protests and we see people clashing,” Schwarzenegger said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The next thing we know is there are injured or there are dead people, and we don’t want to have that.”

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger stepped back into a more moderate posture, appearing to part ways with the president over the constitutional amendment.

“We have a law in California ... that makes it very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, so I don’t have to concern myself with anything else,” he said.