Um, was that an endorsement?

Not quite, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely spoke kindly today of Attorney General Jerry Brown‘s qualifications for, and chances of, succeeding him as governor in 2010.

Schwarzenegger took questions for half an hour from Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel (and did some Teutonic bonding, noting stengel is German for “stick” — my dictionary says it’s actually “stalk” or stem”) before an audience of several hundred during the American Magazine Conference at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel.

Stengel toward the end asked Schwarzenegger who he thinks will get the 2010 Democratic guberntorial nomination. He said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein probably would if she enters the race, but he doubts she’ll do so if Barack Obama wins the White House next month; she’d be more likely to leave behind the Senate senority she has built up — including the Rules and Administration Committee‘s chair — if Congress must work with a McCain Administration.

If DiFi’s not in the race, “Jerry Brown has the best shot at becoming governor,” Schwarzenegger said, noting his extensive experience including two terms as governor, two as Oakland’s mayor and his current stint as California’s top cop. Don’t count out Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner on the Republican side, he added — he’s accomplished and ambitious as well — but Brown has a proven ability to reach across party lines. “I think he is the best choice,” it sounded like Schwarzenegger said in closing.

Gotta wonder how Poizner feels about that.

((UPDATE @ 4:15 P.M.: I guess I misheard it. Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear just sent me a transcript, and here’s the exchange, verbatim:

STENGEL: Who will be the Democratic nominee for governor of California when your term is up?

GOVERNOR: You know, I think the best potential — it depends if Dianne Feinstein comes into the race or not. I think that depends also on who will win the presidency, because if McCain wins the presidency I think that she most likely will leave Washington and will come and run for governor. I think that if Obama wins the presidency she will want to be part of that move and want to stay because of that change, want to stay in Washington, and then Jerry Brown, I think, has the best shot of becoming governor of the great state. And there is Steve Poizner who has also a good shot, who is a Republican and is making his way up right now.

But I think Jerry Brown, because he has been governor twice before in California and he has worked his way back up again from being mayor of Oakland to becoming the Attorney General right now. And he kind of can reach the Republicans and Democrats and bring people together, so I think he has the best shot.))

More from Schwarzenegger’s Q&A, after the jump…

Asked whether he would return to movies after he’s term-limited out of office in 2010, Schwarzenegger replied that if he does his job well for the next two years, “there are all kinds of doors of opportunity open… I’m not concerned about what I’m going to do next, something will be available.” He did say, however, that he “will definitely continue with some form of public service.”

Hmmm. There’d been speculation he might take on Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat in 2010, but he said late last year he wasn’t interested (though, of course, that could change). What might he be mulling?

Schwarzenegger also praised Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke for moving swiftly to stabilize the financial markets during this economic crisis, and denied that the GOP’s general love of deregulation led to this crisis. “I don’t think you can really point the finger at any party,” he said, acknowledging “we have to rely on government now to solve the problem.” He claimed the crisis’ roots are in the “idealistic” desire to extend the American dream of home ownership to low-income families who were never really able to afford it.

Asked how Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whom he endorsed in January, is handling the economic crisis, Schwarzenegger dodged and weaved a bit, noting that during a campaign “everybody picks up everything you say and spins it and twists it in 20 different directions,” and sometimes a candidate’s visceral reaction to that is to revert to a stock stump speech and “end up talking like a machine.”

He’d deadpanned that line, but the audience cracked up, recalling his “Terminator” personna.

Anyway, Schwarzenegger did say reverting to smear tactics and mudslinging isn’t the answer. “I think it’s very important that we urge both candidates to go out and start talking about the issues again.” McCain has done “a great job,” is a man of character, and has a history of bouncing back from underdog status, he added: “I think he has a good shot of coming back again and I’m behind him because I think he has some great answers.”

Stengel asked Schwarzenegger about Steve Schmidt, who ran his 2006 re-election campaign and now is credited with the aggressive, character-over-issues turn in McCain’s campaign. “He is the guru in this (political) world, and I think if you want to have a campaign run efficiently, he’s the man,” Schwarzenegger said, adding Schmidt has a track record of attracting independent and even Democratic voters by adapting to each candidate’s individual style. “I think he’s really a genius and I think he’s going to do a great job for McCain.”

The latest McCain meme is “Who is Barack Obama?,” an attempt to imply there’s more to him than voters know. Stengel asked Schwarzenegger that very question, and the governor replied he believes Obama is “a Senator who is very ambitious” and probably dreamed from his childhood of being a leader and the best at his game. “I can relate to that kind of drive, you have to have that in you… that drive and that will do do anything that it takes,” Schwarzenegger said, noting how he knew at age 10 he wanted to come to America and make his fortune by being the best at something (though he didn’t know back then that it would be bodybuilding, Hollywood and politics).

Stengel noted Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, is a Democrat and ardent Obama supporter, and asked the governor how that plays out at his dinner table. “We have a good time,” the governor replied as the audience laughed, and then he plunged into an anecdote.

A few days before the 2004 presidential election, his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, came to visit, in a downright joyful mood at the prospect of John Kerry’s victory over the incumbent George W. Bush — she even brought a lifesize cardboard cutout of Kerry (I wonder how they could tell the difference from the real thing) and parked it in Schwarznegger’s dining room.

But by the early evening of Election Day, it began to seem Kerry wouldn’t carry the day, and Shriver’s spirits began to flag. When it was all over, Schwarzenegger said, “she looked at me, she was so depressed, she grabbed the cutout of Kerry and carried it right out of the house.”

“It’s all with a good sense of humor,” he said of his family’s partisan divide, noting he swore when he wed his wife that he would support her “in sickness and in health, and being a Democrat is a sickness.” Apparently it’s contagious; he said his daughter, Katherine, 18, was phone-banking for Obama this past weekend, although his son, Patrick, 15, is “way to the right of me.”

Asked what he thinks of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Schwarzenegger said he has “very rarely seen any human being, or any subject as far as that goes, being such a lively topic of conversation.” He said she brings “tremendous strength” as well as “tremendous vulnerabilities” to the ticket, though he said managing money and people as a mayor and governor “gives you tremendous experience, much more so than you have in the Senate where you don’t have to manage anything.”

Asked if he believes the Constitution should be amended to let non-natural-born citizens serve as President, he replied, “Um, absolutely,” though he acknowledged it should be done in the longer term, not to serve any particular candidate. He said when McCain tapped Palin as the vice-presidential pick, he placed a call to the Alaska governor and teased her about how Miss Alaska (or, I guess, the runner-up) can be on the ticket but not Mr. Universe.

“She didn’t think it was that funny,” he said.

Stengel closed by riffing through some rapid-fire questions like those featured in Time’s weekly “10 Questions” feature. We learned:

  • Schwarzenegger still lifts weights “five times a week, and I do my cardiovascular training pretty much every day.
  • His favorite movie of 2008 has been “The Dark Knight.”
  • Asked to name actors whom he believes would make good politicians, he named Clint Eastwood (who, of course, already has been Carmel’s mayor) as “a reasonable man… fiscally responsible… a very stable character.” Stengel asked what he thinks of George Clooney; he replied he believes Clooney is smart and talented, but he doesn’t know whether Clooney’s skin is thick enough to take the constant scrutiny and criticism of public office.
  • He reads a daily digest of state and national news sources, several California newspapers, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, some softer “magazines about wine” and such, and Der Spiegel.
  • Josh Richman

    Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.