Raging fires provide governor chance to shine, gain approval



By Laura Kurtzman

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – 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.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    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.”

    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.

    Associated Press writer Scott Lindlaw contributed to this report