SACRAMENTO — Three words say it all about California politics in 2005 — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — but that may not be the case in 2006.

After voters crushed his government-revamp special election, Schwarzenegger is moving toward the center again and vowing to work with the Legislature.

That effort could easily snarl as Democrats work to oust him in the November election, and some conservative Republicans wonder if he should run as an independent.

The Republican actor-turned-politician was elected in an unprecedented recall in late 2003 and rode his celebrity status through 2004 as he successfully began tackling the states persistent deficit at the ballot box.

Then in 2005 he changed the plot, his popularity in a Democratic state plummeted, and Californians are now waiting to see where his re-election effort goes.

Early in 2005, he launched his so-called Year of Reform. He said if the Democrat-dominated Legislature balked, he would go around it again as he did in 2004.

But this time, unions and other Democratic constituencies claimed his proposals were a partisan attack and said he had veered to the right.

With little legislative support throughout the year for his agenda, he called a special election for Nov. 8.

Voters soundly rejected initiatives on spending limits, toughening teacher tenure, revamping political redistricting and on use of union dues.

Immediately after voters cast ballots, Schwarzenegger all but apologized for the special election.

We need more bipartisan cooperation. I promise I will deliver that, he said. Californians are sick and tired of the fighting. Tomorrow we begin anew.

And he appeared to, meeting with legislative leaders and vowing bipartisan cooperation on major concerns. Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, welcomed the offer. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuez, D-Los Angeles, has been less enthusiastic.

Almost overnight, Schwarzenegger, who portrayed the Terminator in movies, switched from the Reforminator to the Infrastructure-nator.

He is putting together a plan to rebuild the worst of Californias ailing infrastructure with a long-term, piecemeal effort that taps tens of billions of dollars from varying bonds, partnerships with the private sector and user fees.

Schwarzenegger is scheduled to unveil his proposals during the State of the State address Thursday along with his budget for 2006-07.

Infrastructure priorities include gridlocked freeways, ramshackle schools and colleges, congested ports and crumbling levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that protect homes and Southern California drinking water.

But critics include fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who fear tax hikes. Moreover, Perata and Nuez both have their own infrastructure plans.

The setup ensures infrastructure proposals will figure in both the 2006 legislative session and elections.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate who oversees bonds in California, said the governors plan is upside down.

He must first balance the state budget, said Angelides, noting that California is still spending about $4 billion more than it takes in each year.

Im viewing this as political rhetoric from Schwarzenegger rather than reality, Angelides said. The governor has just picked up a different script.

Barely more than a month after the special election, Angelides and more than two dozen candidates were ramping up for Junes primary, which is expected to be an expensive and hotly contested battle for eight major statewide offices.

With only three incumbents seeking re-election — Schwarzenegger, schools Superintendent Jack OConnell and Secretary of State Bruce McPherson — the races will reshape a broad swath of government.

And experts say the key to party power will be whether an embattled Schwarzenegger can regain favor among a disenchanted and heavily Democratic electorate and bring in other Republican candidates on his coattails in the November 2006 general election. 

For most of the Republicans running for office — if they are a challenger and not an incumbent — unless the Republican nominee for governor gets in the high 50s (percent), its awfully difficult for them to win, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political analyst.

Vying for the Democratic nod to try to unseat Schwarzenegger are Angelides and Controller Steve Westly.

Angelides has long criticized Schwarzenegger — even early in the administration, when the governor was wildly popular with voters — while Westly has more recently opposed the governors reform efforts and other proposals.

Westly, a multimillionaire co-founder of eBay who has held public office for three years, portrays himself in his gubernatorial bid as a political outsider running against a lifelong insider in Angelides.

People do not want to see another career politician, Westly said. They want to see someone whos independent. They dont want to see an ideologue, whether its on the left or right. They want to see someone whos focused on solving problems.

But the outsider label may be a tough sell for Westly, who has raised about $18 million so far, $15 million from his own pocket, and who has been involved in Democratic politics for years, including serving on the Democratic National Committee.

Political analysts expect Angelides, the more liberal of the two, to do better in the primary, though the treasurer — who has raised about $16 million — maintains his focus is not on partisan politics.

Its not a matter of left and right, Angelides said. Its a matter of strength and conviction and commitment, and the toughness to stand up to Arnold Schwarzenegger when hes wrong for the state of California.

For the Schwarzenegger administrations part, advisers simply hope Junes primary battle is bruising enough that it leaves a weakened winner to face Schwarzenegger.

They say Schwarzenegger is unlikely to use a tactic of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who aired ads during the 2002 GOP primary attacking Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — a move that helped nominate Bill Simon, a candidate Davis saw as the weaker opponent.

And while Democrats showed a unified front during Schwarzeneggers special election — forming a tight coalition of labor groups and significantly outspending the governor — advisers say the effort also strained resources, and they expect the unity will fade.

Some of the deep fissures within labor are actually still there, said Rob Stutzman, the governors communications director, who is expected to join the re-election campaign.

I think a bruising Democratic primary will do a lot to disunify that party over the next six months.

The governor, as part of remaking himself, has hired Democrat Susan Kennedy as his chief of staff and has so far raised about $4 million in his gubernatorial account.

But while some statewide office seekers may hope a renewed Schwarzenegger could help build momentum for their own efforts, some analysts say it will be tricky for Schwarzenegger to get too involved.

In the last election, Schwarzenegger failed to add any Republican seats to the Legislature, and as a moderate, he has to be careful not to tie himself to conservative candidates, said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California.

My guess is hes going to stay away from anointing candidates, having been burned once, Jeffe said. Hes not stupid. If he wants to run for the center, he cant embrace a set of candidates against the conservative wing or one that comes from the conservative wing. Thats politically dicey whichever way he goes.

And some of those down-ticket candidates may also have a harder time raising money because donors had to dig deep for last months unplanned special election, where overall spending exceeded $250 million.

Coming off one of the most expensive elections in history, you have donor fatigue, said Barbara OConnor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento.

While people have been raising money and have war chests, down ticket theyre not as well-funded as they should be to go into a statewide primary.

Everybody donated to the special election. So lieutenant governor and secretary of state and insurance commissioner races, particularly in the Democratic Party, took a back seat to union-dominated measures. Now they have to play catch-up at a time when people are tired.

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.