As the new Democratic nominee for governor, state Treasurer Phil Angelides enters the fall campaign a decided underdog against Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing the weight of history and an audience already soured on him.
It has been more than 60 years since a California governor has been denied a second term in office, and the last few months suggest one of the reasons why.
Schwarzenegger, who got his own spanking from surly voters in November's special election, has kept busy since then tending official business. At the same time, Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly were wrestling in the campaign muck until hours before Tuesday's voting.
As a result, the incumbent starts out with a much more favorable image than Angelides, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll of those who cast primary ballots -- which proved a dismally small number, reflecting widespread apathy and revulsion at the nasty tone of the Democratic race.
Fifty-four percent of those interviewed had a favorable view of the governor, compared with 42% for Angelides. While it is important to note the difference between a primary and the larger turnout that is likely in November, those are worrisome numbers for Angelides, especially given the slight Democratic tilt of Tuesday's electorate.
Now he faces the daunting task of buffing his image at the same time he savages the governor, an approach that has been a point of pride for Angelides as he served, unofficially up to now, as California's "anti-Arnold." As both Angelides and Westly learned Tuesday, a candidate who flings mud at his opponent can soil himself in the process.
On Wednesday, Angelides and Schwarzenegger barreled across the state in an aggressive start to the fall campaign. Angelides accused the governor of breaking his promises, while the incumbent tried to stay on a less political plane.
If voters were turned off by the primary -- which will be flirting with a record low turnout once all the ballots are tallied -- the results pleased political strategists on both sides: Democrats because they nominated a candidate who appeals to the party's true believers, and Republicans for the same reason. Each sees Angelides energizing their core supporters: enthusing both the Democrats eager to soak the rich through Angelides' promised tax increase, and Republicans just as anxious to stop him. By this way of thinking, the more centrist Westly would have been a pale carbon of the governor and inspired little partisan passion between now and November, to the benefit of neither.
"Democrats clearly wanted to draw the sharpest contrast," said Roy Behr, a Democratic consultant who watched his party's primary from the sidelines. "They did not want somebody who was one or two shades of difference."
Throughout the primary, Angelides cast himself as the true Democrat in the race, assailing Westly for his early collaboration with Schwarzenegger in efforts to balance the state budget. His give-no-quarter strategy was rewarded Tuesday with his 48% to 43% victory.
The Times exit survey of Democratic primary voters showed Angelides winning a majority of self-described liberals and carrying moderates, while Westly won handily among conservative Democrats, who made up a much smaller part of the turnout.
Angelides prevailed in every ethnic group, save Asians -- probably because Westly featured his Asian American wife in some of his television ads and campaign events. Angelides won 55% of union members, thanks to strong support from organized labor. There was a slight gender gap; the two candidates ran close to even among men, while Angelides prevailed 49% to 41% among women.
Westly appeared to pick up momentum at the end of the contest, which featured an apparently unprecedented number of late-deciders. But it was not enough to catch Angelides. Half of those who made up their minds before the last weekend of the campaign voted for Angelides, compared with 43% for Westly. The two ran even among those who decided over the final weekend and on election day.
The trick now for Angelides is to scamper back toward the political center, where California elections tend to be decided and Schwarzenegger -- after last year's disastrous crusade for conservative causes, ending in the defeat of his November ballot measures -- has lately taken up residence.
Paul Maslin, a top Angelides strategist, signaled the move in an interview Wednesday in which he described the Democratic nominee as "a moderate liberal" and fiscally conservative state treasurer, whose true portrait would emerge over the next several months. With the liberal-dominated primary ended, Maslin said, "We have an ability now to develop a fuller quality of who he is and what he's all about."
Indeed, in his first post-election appearance Wednesday in Los Angeles, Angelides offered his standard riff on protecting the environment, expanding healthcare, lowering college fees and fighting global warming -- and took a swipe at Schwarzenegger for borrowing billions of dollars to balance the budget.
Goodbye, New Deal. Hello, New Democrat.
Angelides may take some comfort in campaign history. There have been countless candidates who have been underestimated, including California's own Ronald Reagan. Democrats were eager to face the actor when he first ran -- figuring he was too ideological for mainstream tastes -- in much the way that gleeful Republicans were rubbing their hands Tuesday over Angelides' victory and the notion of wrapping his tax-increase promise around his neck.
But Maslin insisted that a bold position like that can have its own rewards. "Sometimes when you offer a clear contrast, when you say there's a choice worth examining and fighting for here, you can pull people over to your side," he said. Among other things, it allows a candidate to argue, as Angelides has, that he is motivated by principle rather than politics.
And, of course, there is the built-in advantage of being the Democratic nominee in a state that, by registration and voting pattern, remains strongly Democratic.
It is actually Schwarzenegger who hopes to fuzz the partisan lines, because every single Republican in the state could vote for him Nov. 7 and he could still lose in a landslide. (The bigger worry on the GOP side is that the party faithful, their enthusiasm dampened by scandal and the budget-busters in Congress, will stay home on election day.)
To win a new term, Schwarzenegger needs Democrats and, especially, independent voters to cross over as they did during his recall election. Some argue that might have been more likely if the choice was a flip of the coin between Schwarzenegger and the less distinctive Westly.
And while the governor's camp was busy Wednesday touting Schwarzenegger's favorability ratings in The Times' exit poll, at least some of his strategists -- veterans of the Bush White House and his tenure in Texas -- might have recalled their own bit of campaign history.
On election day in 1994, Texas Gov. Ann Richards had an approval rating of 60%. She lost to George W. Bush.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Democratic Gov. Primary
100% precincts reporting
100% precincts reporting
(End of infobox)
Los Angeles Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Profile of Democratic primary voters
The Times' exit poll reveals how various groups of voters in Tuesday's Democratic primary election cast their ballots for governor and attorney general. The columns of percentages on the right read across. For example, among all voters in the Democratic primary, 48% voted for Angelides, 43% for Westly, 63% for Brown, and 37% for Delgadillo.
(End of infobox)