The Governator loses the populist touch

Today, California voters return to the polls for the fourth time in two years to contemplate a package of ballot initiatives either written or endorsed by the man they know as the Governator. Mr Schwarzenegger's game plan was to go around an intransigent, and politically hostile, state legislature and appeal directly to the people to enact his agenda - which consists largely of reducing the power of public-service unions and granting himself greater powers to craft the state budget.

But all indications are that "the people", or at least a majority of them, do not approve of the time and money being spent on the special election, do not regard the issues at hand as crucial to the future of the state and are sufficiently disgusted with Mr Schwarzenegger to vote no on every measure simply because he is associated with them.

It's been a startling transformation for anyone who remembers the adoring crowds who reliably showed up at every one of Mr Schwarzenegger's campaign events as recently as last November. One of the biggest last-minute boosts President Bush received on the eve of his own re-election was an appearance by Mr Schwarzenegger in the politically crucial state of Ohio.

By contrast, at a public forum in Los Angeles last Thursday - the first Mr Schwarzenegger has held without vetting the audience first - the Governor was assailed again and again by ordinary voters who accused him of wrapping a highly partisan Republican agenda in deceptive pseudo-populist language.

Over the weekend, he was dogged along the campaign trail by his fellow Hollywood actor, Warren Beatty, who together with his wife, Annette Bening, tried and failed to get into Mr Schwarzenegger's closed-door events. They then sounded off about the abuse of Californian democracy to anyone willing to listen (which, given their own considerable star-power, included every television news station that could get near them). Mr Schwarzenegger's handlers, who bear considerable responsibility for squandering the huge political opportunity he once presented, became so spooked by the Arnold turn-off factor that last week they pulled a series of campaign adverts in which he made a personal appearance. Polls showed that the more voters associated a ballot initiative with the governor, they less they liked it.

Mr Schwarzenegger recorded one extra advert instead, in which he struck an uncharacteristic note of contrition - admitting that he had made mistakes but saying his abiding interest remained the future of California, not the future of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He was elected in 2003 because he presented himself as an independent-minded non-politician interested in bringing both major parties together to put the deficit-riddled budget back on track and reform a state notable for its political stagnation and susceptibility to influence-peddling by lobbyists for both corporations and unions.

His problem is that he has behaved increasingly like any other divisively partisan Republican and turned against a number of interest groups - especially school parents - who brought him to power in the first place. Bipartisanship was shot after he dismissed Democrats in the state legislature as "girly men". The open expressions of anger began when he told underpaid, overworked nurses he wanted to "kick their butts".

His camp's strategy in today's election has increasingly been one of desperation - hoping, primarily, that turnout will be dismal enough to eke out victory in at least one or two of the four measures being endorsed by the governor. State election officials, however, are predicting a turnout of slightly more than 40 per cent, which would be relatively robust for an off-year election and looks, on the surface, like more bad news for Mr Schwarzenegger.