Sometimes you stay up all night practicing the dark arts of your profession—say, honing a vicious attack ad. Sometimes you stare through a one-way mirror at a focus group, listening for the magical combination of words that, inserted into a stump speech, will provoke a standing ovation. But sometimes you’re part of the crowd, whooping louder than the civilians who are hearing the speech for the first time, filling in the dead spots when the audience doesn’t cheer as loudly as expected.
“Wooooo, Nixon!” yells Mike Murphy, the shaggy-haired political consultant who helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger governor and worked on Tuesday’s speech. On the Republican convention’s second night, Murphy is standing at the back of the floor clapping wildly as Schwarzenegger praises Nixon, the presidential candidate who inspired him to become a Republican back in 1968. Two years later, the immigrant Austrian bodybuilder made his movie debut in Hercules in New York, speaking in a nearly unintelligible accent. Now Schwarzenegger is onstage at the Garden and he’s plenty clear—he actually seems more comfortable in English than the speakers who will follow him, the Bush twins. And Arnold doesn’t insult his grandmother.
But the words coming from his mouth hardly matter. The fact that one of the biggest stars in the world is proclaiming his allegiance to President Bush—and that the TV networks are carrying Schwarzenegger’s speech live—is a weapon the Democrats can’t match. “The networks didn’t carry Giuliani or McCain,” says Bill Schneider, the CNN analyst and former political strategist. “They’re carrying Schwarzenegger tonight not because he’s the governor of California, but because he’s a star. He’s still considered above politics, and beyond party, and because he’s a celebrity, he reaches the ‘undecided’ voters in the swing states, who are really the tuned-out voters.”
Murphy, who also worked for Jeb Bush and John McCain, sees it differently, of course. “Arnold appeals to the independents, the people who are going to deliver this election for Bush,” he says. Standing next to Murphy is Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger’s communications director. The two powerful operatives are wedged into an aisle between the South Carolina and Vermont delegations; the chairman of the nearby Nebraska delegation, who clearly doesn’t recognize them, keeps telling Murphy and Stutzman to move along. As Schwarzenegger stokes the crowd with a jab at the U.N., Murphy snaps a picture of Stutzman snapping a picture of Maria Shriver and Bush the First, seated in a nearby box. Just a couple of guys collecting souvenirs for the scrapbook.
Yeah, right. There’s an immediate reminder of all the calculation that goes into “spontaneous” moments: Arnold drops his “girlie-men” line, and the crowd roars. “It’s cheap,” Murphy says, laughing, “but we couldn’t resist.”