By LAURA KURTZMAN
Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Watching the action from the wings isn't in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's blood.
With the presidential campaign fully engaged - and the U.S. Constitution barring the foreign-born movie star-turned-high-profile-politician from running himself - Schwarzenegger is finding ways to play a role in politics' biggest drama.
He elevated his status in the contest by signing a bill shifting California's primary from June to Feb. 5, a move that is expected to force candidates to campaign in the most delegate-rich state rather than just swoop in to raise money.
And, he plans to travel to other early primary states to give speeches. Schwarzenegger's advisers will not say exactly what the governor has planned or when he will do it.
Voters are so disenchanted with President Bush that many seem hungry for just the sort of outsider candidate Schwarzenegger so adroitly personifies. He was one of the few Republicans to win re-election easily last November and, had he been born in the U.S. instead of Austria, he would be a natural contender in a wide-open presidential race.
"I think it is an unprecedented position," said former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor Peter Schrag, an expert on California politics. "Probably next to the president, he's the best-known politician in the country."
Adds Matthew Baum, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, "It would be a great year for him, because he is one of those Republicans who has distanced himself from the current administration."
Still, as California governor, Schwarzenegger can direct media attention and fundraising toward presidential candidates. So far, he has refused to endorse in the primary and has kept everyone guessing about his intentions. The presence of two candidates with whom he is friendly and has much in common politically - Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani - complicates that decision.
Yet Schwarzenegger yearns to play a larger role than just endorsing a candidate. He wants to influence the presidential debate on issues such as global warming and health care, which he has addressed in the face of federal inaction.
The governor's desire to get in on the action was apparent during a recent Giuliani visit to California. At a private meeting, Schwarzenegger urged Giuliani to talk about global warming. When Giuliani answered a reporter's question on the subject a few days later, Schwarzenegger's public relations team swung into motion, taking credit for getting him to address it.
However, the former New York City mayor embraced a more conservative position than Schwarzenegger has taken. Giuliani questioned the extent to which global warming was caused by pollution and advocated nuclear power as a means of creating clean energy.
California has a moratorium on building nuclear power plants, and Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the matter.
The incident illustrates that, however much attention he garners, Schwarzenegger will have difficulty strongly influencing the terms of the presidential debate.
During the primary, the leading GOP candidates will be scrambling to appeal to the Republican base - conservative voters whose views on many issues, from abortion to gay rights, are at odds with Schwarzenegger's.
"To get the nomination, they're having to move away from who they are and move away from what Arnold represents," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in San Francisco. "One of the reasons why Arnold is so popular right now is because he's the anti-Bush."
As a shadow candidate for president whose goal is to win attention, Schwarzenegger has been highly effective. The New York Times recently lauded him for "saving the Republican Party from being totally dominated by climate cranks" who deny global warming.
Lou Cannon, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, said that as a politician who cannot run for president, Schwarzenegger has a fantasy appeal to the national media.
"He's very safe," Cannon said. "You'll never have to write about what Arnold does in office, because he'll never be in office. He's one of those lovely might-have-beens."
EDITOR'S NOTE - Laura Kurtzman covers politics for The Associated Press.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)