GOP Foil, Thy Name is Arnold

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Failed to deliver. Big government spender. Weak leadership.

Those are some of the things being said about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as this election year kicks off... not by Democrats, but by his fellow Republicans. And it may be just the beginning.

A great case in point comes today with the first of what will likely be a lot of TV ads from GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who is on her way to breaking all records for campaign spending in California.

Whitman's kickoff commercial is mostly a statement of principles about her leadership abilities. But embedded not too far below the surface are comments about the leadership qualities that have existed so far -- including, one would assume those of Schwarzenegger.

"People are scared to death that California cannot be fixed," Whitman says, then delivering this thinly veiled zinger: "The most important thing that the next governor of California has to do is actually deliver the goods."

As in... the current governor hasn't delivered the "goods"?

This isn't the first time the current GOP front runner has taken aim at the guy in the corner office. It began during last year's budget deficit debate and has continued from there, albeit fairly quietly. The most notable clash, so far, has come over Whitman's frequent calls to trim the state employee workforce.

For his part, Whitman gubernatorial rival Steve Poizner has been a little more opaque about the Schwarzenegger role in California's crisis. But not much.

In his December raison d’être web video, the insurance commissioner put it this way: "Weak leadership, and wrong-headed ideas have transformed California from the envy of the world into a ruthless job killer."

Weak leadership from... who?

And it's not just governor wannabes taking their shots. This week's oddball web video from U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina was aimed at the record of opponent Tom Campbell. But the biggest target Campbell had on his back in the ad seemed to be from his time serving as Schwarzenegger's budget director in 2005.

The ominous narrator describes that budget... one with Schwarzenegger's signature on it, mind you, not Campbell's, thusly: "A budget so bloated with increased ongoing spending commitments and borrowing that it literally set the stage for the recent decline of California."

Yowza.

Of course, beating up the incumbent is nothing new. Schwarzenegger himself did an awfully good job at that in 2003. But these are Republicans taking shots at what, in most states, would be the Republican standard bearer (party activists don't see him as that, as you might know).

For their part, the Schwarzenegger camp isn't buying it.

"Voters are accustomed to politicians and aspiring politicians making generic statements," said Schwarzenegger political adviser Adam Mendelsohn. "They tune it out. I think they should tell voters about themselves before spending millions on generalities and platitudes."

It's worth noting that this is only February, and the campaigns are still finding their footing. But California's problems are hard to ignore, and blaming incumbents is almost second nature in politics. It will be interesting to see whether the Schwarzenegger attacks continue, and how the governor himself handles them as election day draws near.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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