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Schwarzenegger vows political end run

California's governor set a March 1 deadline for the legislature to act on reforms, or else.

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For the second time in three years, California politics are taking a turn toward the surreal.

In 2003, the recall election turned a referendum about Gov. Gray Davis into a carnival of the bizarre, considering porn stars and sumo wrestlers as would-be governors of America's largest state. This year, the winner of that contest is poised to turn to the same mechanism - the ballot initiative - in an attempt to at last fix the underlying problems that he believes led to the recall two years ago.

Taking up his role of action hero earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed four sweeping and controversial reforms, ranging from merit pay for teachers to privatizing state pensions. And he demanded that lawmakers tackle the issues by March 1 - or else he would take the battle to the ballot.

Tuesday, that deadline will pass with little progress, and Mr. Schwarzenegger will have to decide whether to ramp up an initiative campaign unlike any seen in American history - both for its intensity and scope.

Even for someone with Schwarzenegger's considerable skills of communication, the ballot presents enormous challenges. Not only would the governor be picking a fight with some of the most powerful groups in the state - from teachers to legislators - but he would also be pressed for time. If he wants to hold a November special election, he has only seven weeks to gather 1.2 million signatures for each item.

Should he fail, he risks casting himself as Jesse Ventura redux - an ultimately unsuccessful novelty governor who attempted to blow up the system and instead only alienated himself from everyone inside it. The opportunity for success, however, points to a potential watershed moment for direct democracy.

"I don't think we've ever had anybody call a special election to put so many of his initiatives on the ballot and completely bypass the legislature," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California in Berkeley. "Arnold's innovation is to use initiatives as a tool of executive governance."

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