To the jubilant victor, the spoils: a massive deficit and a divided state. Arnie's troubles may just be starting

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The Independent US

Arnold Schwarzenegger strode to victory in the California governor's race the way he started out just nine weeks ago: on television, before a star-struck live audience, introduced by one of his closest entertainment world buddies, brimming with the confidence of a man who feels no need to explain who he is or what exactly he stands for because, to his adoring fans, his name alone is enough.

After one of the most unorthodox, most unpredictable and shortest political campaigns in recent US history, victory came swiftly and decisively. Mr Schwarzenegger had said on the campaign trail that it was time to terminate Gray Davis, the unpopular Democrat who had presided over the largest budget deficit in Californian history. And terminated Mr Davis duly was, less than a year after he was re-elected, becoming the first Californian governor ever to be recalled from office mid-term.

In his victory speech, Mr Schwarzenegger painted himself in the populist colours that have marked his campaign. He would go to Sacramento as the people's champion, he said, sticking it to the professional politicians in the pocket of lobbyists and special interests.

"I want to be the governor of the people," he said. "I want to represent everybody." But the people only got so much of a look-in. The victory celebration, in an underground ballroom at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles - once Ronald Reagan's campaign centre - was not open to the public. Security guards kept even Republican Party stalwarts and late-arriving political journalists at bay. Without vetting and pre-approval, nobody was allowed to go anywhere.

The room itself had the feel of a carefully staged Hollywood photo-op, with media cameras taking up more than half the space on the ballroom floor and a handpicked selection of supporters - most of them women, chosen presumably to help live down recent groping allegations - arrayed in stadium-step rows on stage.

Loud cheering greeted Governor Davis's concession speech, broadcast on television screens behind the stage. Half an hour later, the man of the moment was introduced - not by a Republican Party chieftain, not by a campaign insider, but by Jay Leno, the late-night television talk-show host on whose programme, The Tonight Show, Mr Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy back in August.

"For the first time in his career, the critics are calling him an actor," Mr Leno quipped, before quickly ceding centre-stage. Mr Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, strode in like the golden Hollywood couple they are: flashing perfect white smiles from their perfectly chiselled, suntanned faces. It all looked very euphoric when replayed - with just a couple of seconds' lag - on the giant TV screens. But in the ballroom itself, it felt strangely flat, a movie-set emotionality where the image being captured on camera is everything and the rest, outside the frame, is pure artifice - just stage props, snaking cables, and gum-chewing technicians.

Such has been the flavour of the Schwarzenegger campaign from the outset: a virtually content-free policy platform delivered in soundbites in carefully choreographed settings well away from the conventional arenas of democratic politics. Sure, Mr Schwarzenegger gave interviews, but mostly to the entertainment press; he never sat down with a heavyweight reporter for an in-depth policy discussion. Sure, Mr Schwarzenegger held so-called town hall meetings, but the audiences were all supporters to begin with; the real town hall - citizens with questions and reservations and perhaps even a touch of hostility - was kept deliberately at arm's length.

Mr Schwarzenegger shied away from all but one of the candidates' debates, saying he was too busy talking directly to the people to mix it up with his rivals. When pressed on crucial issues, such as his plan to eliminate California's budget deficit, he said he would not get into specifics until after the election. "Trust me," was his oft-repeated refrain, and Californians clearly decided they would. His promise to "kick some serious butt", just like he did in the movies, was good enough for them.

It may not have been a surprise that Mr Schwarzenegger chose to run a showbiz campaign, a triumph of image over content. What is surprising, however, is how well it worked. Even before last week's scandals - women coming forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and humiliation, and an old interview transcript in which he apparently expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler - the Californian newspapers had asked plenty of hard questions of Mr Schwarzenegger and found him wanting. But if the newspapers were against him, television and talk radio were both cheering him on. In the digital age, that was all he needed.

Sometimes the strategy descended into absurdity. In an appearance with his wife on Oprah Winfrey's daytime show, the host and her guests went into an orgy of mutual congratulation. Ms Winfrey, a long-standing friend of Maria Shriver's, asked only the gentlest of questions - appalling her viewers who bombarded her website with complaints.

A few days later, Ms Shriver - who, as a television journalist herself, clearly knows better - unveiled her 10 reasons to vote for Arnold at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. These included such politically penetrating considerations as: he's smart, he's disciplined, he's compassionate, he's a leader. When the presentation was over, Ms Shriver's refused to take questions from political journalists, who were kept away by security guards, and spoke only to campaign supporters yapping adoringly at her ankles like star-struck puppies.

Some political scientists and academics are gloomily saying that the rise of Mr Schwarzenegger spells the end of meaningful political debate, even of political journalism: that, in a celebrity-obsessed world, policy is not nearly as important as the glamour of your public persona and your access to the broadcast media. In this respect, Mr Schwarzenegger's rise is uncannily similar to Silvio Berlusconi's in Italy - a man who owns the airwaves even more directly than the action-hero movie star.

Many Californians are genuinely enthused by Mr Schwarzenegger's promise to "clean house" and end the domination of politics by special interests. Others, especially on the liberal left, see such slogans as empty rhetoric masking a standard Republican agenda of defending corporations and the rich, at the expense of cutting social services, public health and education and damaging the environment.

Mr Schwarzenegger did not just win because of his celebrity, however. He was helped by the unpopularity of Mr Davis, loathed by Democrats every bit as much as Republicans for his obsession with campaign fund-raising and the effect the contributions he received appeared to have on his governing priorities. And he was helped by the weakness of his opponents in the replacement part of the ballot.

Some, like the conservative Republican Tom McClintock or the Green Peter Camejo, were impressive candidates hampered by the marginal appeal of their platforms. But the rival who really mattered, the Democrat Cruz Bustamante, proved to be a mediocre campaigner over-dependent on contributions from yet another special interest - the Indian gambling industry - and unable to prove he would be much different from Gray Davis. (An irony, that, since he and Mr Davis detest each other.)

The big challenge will come when Mr Schwarzenegger has to start governing - an unenviable task in a state that is broke, riven by divisions in the state legislature and struggling with the economic downturn besetting the country. He almost certainly won't have time to conduct an audit of the state's finances, as he promised, before the hell of new budget negotiations starts up again in December. If he's unlucky, he will also have to spend time fending off groping allegations, as more women come forward to accuse him and high-profile feminist lawyers dig their claws into him.

"Tomorrow the hard work will begin - oh yes," Mr Schwarzenegger acknowledged in his victory speech. In his new incarnation, it's going to take a lot more than pumping iron in the gym to achieve success.