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Schwarzenegger looks to rebuild power

The celebrity California governor, gearing up for 2006 reelection bid, aims to craft a more centrist image.

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Recover. Reform. Rebuild. As a bodybuilder, that was Arnold Schwarzenegger's method to sculpt eye-popping muscles. As a governor, it was his three-part plan to fix California. Now, it might be his prescription for political survival.

After dedicating his first year in office to economic recovery, Governor Schwarzenegger (R) tried to make 2005 the year of reform. That effort ended when voters rejected all four initiatives he promoted in last month's special election. Having failed to reform the state, he promptly reformed his staff - and his rhetoric. But hiring a Democrat as his new chief of staff and pushing for an estimated $50 billion bond measure to improve state infrastructure have left some of the governor's conservative allies feeling betrayed.

The backlash is a sign of tensions that could intensify as the governor ramps up for reelection next year. At one level, his struggle to appeal broadly to voters while keeping core supporters happy is a dilemma shared by virtually every politician.

But Schwarzenegger's case is unique because it goes to the heart of his political identity. Is he truly a Republican, who happens to share some Democratic values? Or is he a hybrid candidate - part fiscal conservative, part social liberal, part libertarian, part populist, and all celebrity?

Even as he aims to reassure his anxious political base during a meeting with state GOP leaders Thursday, some observers are asking: Would Schwarzenegger be better off running for reelection as an Independent?

"Running officially as an Independent candidate would allow him to reestablish his political base at the center of the spectrum," says Dan Schnur, one of the state's top GOP strategists. "But even if he remained registered as a Republican, he's still going to run as a centrist and as an independent."

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