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Schwarzenegger nears exit reeling

He may not be back after failing to tame California's fiscal mess.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Arnold Schwarzenegger landed in the governor's office in 2003 after announcing his upstart bid on late-night TV and railing against government spending during raucous campaign rallies - at one playing a spirited round of air guitar to the rock anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Then the world's best-known action star, Schwarzenegger conveyed an image of invincibility, convincing Californians that anything was possible if only they had the right mind-set.

"I know how to sell something," he said then.

As he would come to learn, selling a political idea is one thing. Delivering on it is quite another.

In high Hollywood style, Schwarzenegger made bold commitments to cut through Sacramento's dysfunctional political system and put the state on a path to prosperity. But his celebrity quickly ran aground on the shoals of bureaucracy, entrenched politics, and something he had never faced before - angry detractors who did not hesitate to attack him publicly.

After initially deriding nurses as "special interests" whose "butts" he was always kicking, he was brought down to earth by the nurses union and teachers' and other public employee groups, which staged protests and helped derail his "year of reform" agenda during a special election in 2005.

His outsize personality was not enough to see through many of his dreams and promises, especially once the recession hit in late 2007 and led to a steep drop in tax revenue.

The governor, 63, leaves office next month with a mixed record, winning praise for his precedent-setting environmental activism and criticism for his failure to tame the fiscal mess, as he promised when Californians recalled Gov. Gray Davis and installed him instead.

Optimism abounded in the wake of the historic recall. Schwarzenegger had unprecedented goodwill and a blazingly positive attitude, and was an outsider who said he would not be beholden to special interests.

"What the people want to hear is . . . are you tough enough to go in there and provide leadership? That's what this is about, and I will be tough enough," Schwarzenegger said during the campaign.

But he often did not have the patience to get the changes he wanted. He regularly changed course on major initiatives when he encountered roadblocks. He backed down from a massive proposal to restructure government, even though it projected savings of $32 billion over five years. Democrats howled, and the governor feared they might block his other efforts.

"I had very high hopes for him. Maybe it's a case of my expectations and people's expectations were too high in the first place," said Lou Cannon, the author of five books on former President Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as California governor.

After besting an eclectic and improbable parade of 134 other candidates in the recall, Schwarzenegger followed through on a promise to wipe out an increase in the car tax on his first day in office, punching a $6 billion annual hole in the state budget.

He kept his promise to be a different kind of governor.

The perenially tanned seven-time Mr. Olympia strode the halls of the state Capitol in designer suits and snakeskin cowboy boots as adoring children and adults jostled for photos. The crowds still clamor for a shot with him, even as his approval rating has fallen to 32 percent - about the same as Davis' when he was recalled.

Deals were brokered over stogies and schnapps in a smoking tent he erected in the garden of the governor's office in the state Capitol.

When lawmakers did not go along with him, he called them "girlie men" for failing to stand up to special interests that he said controlled their agenda. He once sent the Democratic state Senate leader a metal sculpture of bull testicles the size of a football, urging him to have the "fortitude" to make deep cuts to social-service programs.

He alternately praised and vilified fellow Republicans. They ignored him, and the minority party's slide continued into this November's election, when Republicans failed to win a single statewide office.

Many of Schwarzenegger's promises never came true.

He pledged to "blow up the boxes" of government, but his structural reforms have been modest. The boards and commissions he railed against remain largely intact, and he continued the political legacy of rewarding termed-out lawmakers by naming them to six-figure jobs on obscure boards that meet infrequently.

He promised to get state government to live within its means, then used borrowing and accounting gimmicks to close budget deficits.

But the centrist Republican won some major political reforms that are expected to bear fruit in the future. They include a voter-approved measure that removes the power to draw legislative districts from lawmakers and gives it to an independent commission. He also championed an open primary system approved by voters in which the top two primary vote-getters will appear on the general-election ballot, regardless of party affiliation. Both changes are designed to favor more moderate politicians.

Schwarzenegger leaves incoming Gov. Jerry Brown in virtually the same fiscal position he inherited but with fewer options to fix it.

The state's deficit is estimated at $28 billion over the next 18 months. Its schools and infrastructure are stressed, state workers are disheartened, and seven in 10 residents believe the state is on the wrong track. Gridlock and hyperpartisanship have replaced political discourse in Sacramento, and unemployment exceeded 12 percent since mid-2009.

Cannon said that after a promising start, Schwarzenegger failed to engage rank-and-file lawmakers who could have helped him broker deals.

"A lot of the work of a governor . . . is how you're able to negotiate with the Legislature. . . . The governor and the Legislature together never really got their hands dirty on the fiscal issues," Cannon said. "He was elected to do that."