Schwarzenegger still needs the right

We were wondering how long Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rags-to-riches immigrant story, his engaging personality and celebrity aura would carry him as a candidate for California governor. Well, judging by a Field Poll over the weekend that shows Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante eking out a lead in the race to potentially replace Gov. Gray Davis, not much longer. It’s time for Mr. Schwarzenegger to build on his celebrity with definitive announcements about his views, before it’s too late.

Unless a federal judge postpones the election — which remains a distinct possibility given ongoing voting-rights lawsuits — the current short election time frame magnifies mistakes. Mr. Schwarzenegger’s main blunder so far is the same blunder committed by his friend, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Mr. Riordan didn’t believe he needed conservative support, so he ran a campaign entirely geared toward liberals and moderates.

Granted, Mr. Riordan was running in a Republican primary, which is dominated by conservatives. The current race is like a giant open primary, and any candidate must build the broadest possible support to win. But, nevertheless, Mr. Schwarzenegger needs to inspire conservatives also, given that conservatives sparked the recall effort and will probably vote in large percentages.

We’re not suggesting that he embrace a traditional conservative campaign. But he needs to tell conservatives that he is with them on some key issues, or risk permanently losing their support to Republican conservatives Bill Simon or state Sen. Tom McClintock. If either of those two men, or both of them, surge in the polls, that support will come out of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s, and Mr. Bustamante will become the clear favorite.

Unfortunately, Mr. Schwarzenegger has botched it so far. His cast of advisers is filled with uninspiring retreads and tax advocates rather than bold limited-government visionaries. (And who can explain Rob Lowe?) Instead of, say, explaining why he is for limited government in general — appealing to social liberals as well as fiscal conservatives — he has been reacting to things his advisers are saying.

Conservatives, who have been waiting for Mr. Schwarzenegger to give them a reason to support him, were stunned when adviser, Democrat financier Warren Buffett, criticized tax-limiting Proposition 13 last week.

A Schwarzenegger statement in response to the gaffe hit the right tone: “Twenty-five years ago, the people rose up and demanded relief from outrageous property taxes. The politicians of California at that time were unresponsive to the people’s needs … .”

OK, that’s good. But it is only a start. The sooner Mr. Schwarzenegger understands that a populist revolt needs some populist messages, the sooner he will build political support that is deeper than the current fascination with his celebrity.