Welcome to Arnie’s big tent

Politicians used to meet in smoke-filled back rooms. Arnold Schwarzenegger, action movie star turned governor of California, prefers open-air tents.

As a cigar connoisseur, he had to come up with a novel way around California's ban on smoking in public places when he was first elected four years ago. He had a tent built outside the capitol building in Sacramento where he can ponder policy while smoking his cherished Macanudo cigars or offer advice to fellow conservatives eager to win elections.

David Cameron, leader of Britain's opposition Conservative party, recently discussed crime and anti-gang strategies in the tent. Republican candidates hoping to win their party's presidential nomination and then the election could also benefit from time in the governor's makeshift office. He was re-elected last November in a landslide, despite crushing defeats for Republicans in the US Senate and Congress.

Winning California will give a presidential candidate 55 electoral college votes, or 20 per cent of the total needed to take the White House. As governor of the most populous and economically important state in the US, Mr Schwarzenegger holds great sway within his party and could play a significant role come the election.

His popularity has mushroomed since 2005, when he started following what he calls a "post partisan" agenda. After being defeated in a series of special ballots to reform public-sector pensions, he changed tack, engaging with state Democrats and winning valuable converts from the political centre ground.

He has yet to endorse formally a Republican candidate for next year but says Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain are "action heroes" who have shown they can cope under pressure. "In the end, when people go in the voting booth, those are the things they carry with them in there. They don't remember so much all the policies."

He is also a fan of Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, who has also succeeded in appealing to Democrats and Republicans.

Mr Schwarzenegger's own centrist views have often caused disquiet in Republican ranks, but he says: "We were elected to be public servants, not party servants."

He angered some last year when he launched legislation to fight climate change. His proposal for universal health insurance that would see employers pay 4 per cent of payroll costs into a pool to fund coverage, also irritated some of California's GOP members.

"They are people's issues," insists Mr Schwarzenegger. "So my message to [Republicans] is: help me with my agenda and it will be a winning agenda. It will rub off on you when you go out and try and get elected. You will be able to say: I was fighting for healthcare, for education, a good lunch programme for kids so they could lose weight?those are all good issues and I want [the party] to be part of it, rather than against all of those things."

His ratings have improved following his move towards the centre, but Republican presidential candidates have lurched rightwards. Their televised presidential debates have been dominated by arguments about gay marriage, abortion and immigration.

Endless scrutiny of the positions Republican candidates have taken on these issues is not helping, he adds. "Neither one of those three subjects will move us to economic power?the candidates have to move the agenda rather than answering these questions."

Republican candidates could learn from his ability to embrace new ideas without changing his core beliefs. He drives a gas-guzzling Hummer, for example, but kept his green credentials intact by having it retro­fitted to run on hydrogen. Meanwhile, despite his desire to reform healthcare, he shows no sign of giving up cigars.

Leadership, he adds, is all "about bringing people along. If 30 per cent of the people are for one thing and 70 per cent are against it, and if you are absolutely convinced it's the right thing to do, then it's your job to lead the people, to communicate with them in such a way so that you can change the numbers".

Mr Schwarzenegger may need to exercise his own action hero credentials if he is to force through his healthcare plan, which requires approval in the California legislature.

California is one of several states trying to push through new legislation to improve healthcare. He says his proposal is "very sensible. We want to have everyone insured and by creating this bigger risk pool?it makes the insurance companies able to afford to cover everybody."

"Hillary Clinton talked about healthcare reform in the early 1990s but the nation wasn't ready for it, nor did she do it the right way because she suggested government-run programmes. You can't have government run anything because it's disastrous."

However, he commends Mrs Clinton for coming up with a new health strategy, which has formed a central plank of her presidential campaign. "Hillary wanted to solve healthcare so we don't knock her."

This may alarm Republicans who would like to keep Mrs Clinton far away from his tent. But his willingness to praise an idea regardless of its origins fits in with his inclusive philosophy.

"It's a learning process," he says, preparing to leave the tent and brave the rain. "If you fall in love with an idea you have it may be that as time goes on it crumbles and it doesn't work you have to get rid of it. This is how you learn on the job."

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