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State's Democrats pin their hopes on Congress

OAKLAND — As a loyal Democrat, Joe Blakely had an easy time choosing sides in the governor's race. He backs Phil Angelides, even though he is convinced Arnold Schwarzenegger is destined for a second term.

In fact, when he picks up the newspaper, Blakely doesn't bother reading stories about the gubernatorial campaign. "I'm sure he's not going to win," the 56-year-old attorney said of Angelides, who lags far behind the Republican incumbent in both fundraising and opinion polls.

But that's not to say Blakely is disheartened or disengaged as election day nears.

"I'm following everything about the congressional stuff in the paper," he said, pleased at the growing chances of Democrats to take over one or possibly even both houses of Congress. "I want to have something to check [President] Bush."

It may be whistling past the proverbial graveyard, as their candidate for governor struggles in an increasingly difficult contest. But many California Democrats are sounding what seems like an awfully cheery tune these days, considering the high hopes they once had for ousting Schwarzenegger after less than three years in office.

The prospect of big gains nationally is buoying their spirits and, for many, dispelling any inclination to sit this election out. "It's like the little kid brother finally standing up for himself," said Brian Watson, a 30-year-old aerospace worker in El Segundo.

A series of more than 50 random interviews with Democrats in party strongholds around the state — Oakland, Santa Monica, San Francisco and Monrovia — indicates that many loyalists are resigned to four more years of Schwarzenegger.

Given his co-opting of their party's agenda — on issues that include hiking the minimum wage, fighting greenhouse gases and cutting the cost of prescription drugs — there are plenty who say that's not such an awful thing. Indeed, polls suggest as many as four in 10 California Democrats could end up voting for Schwarzenegger.

"When he goes against the grain, he's actually pretty compelling as governor," said Jason Stagliano, a 37-year-old high-tech executive taking a smoking break along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. Stagliano suggested he was making a lesser-of-evils calculation as he looked toward November, deciding between Schwarzenegger — who has left a "monster debt" for future generations with his extensive borrowing in Sacramento — and Angelides, who "has zero star power."

Dan Altemus, 58, a labor arbitrator in Oakland, has already made up his mind to cross party lines and support Schwarzenegger for a second term.

The governor "seems to be trying to get people back to the center, and he seems to understand, after an initial effort on his part to be very partisan, that he needs the Democrats' cooperation to get anything done," Altemus said, pausing between errands in the city's bustling Rockridge neighborhood.

Angelides has his boosters. David Borstel was puffing his way up a steep incline after dropping off his absentee ballot at the post office in San Francisco's Noe Valley. The 82-year-old retiree scoffed at Schwarzenegger — "he's an actor playing a politician" — and expressed admiration for the way his Democratic challenger has handled himself in the campaign.

Around the corner, Walter Moore, 69, a retired Amtrak conductor, praised the job Angelides has done as treasurer. He relished the chance to stick it to the governor. "I vote against Schwarzenegger any chance I get," he said, cackling behind a bristly salt-and-pepper beard.

But Moore conceded, "Unless the polls change dramatically, it looks like it's going to be Schwarzenegger" for another term in Sacramento.

"You have to realize that Schwarzenegger has got the power of the governorship where he gets all the attention, he's got all the money he wants to spend, including his own. It's tough for Angelides."

But if Democrats are discouraged about their candidate's chances, they don't seem downbeat overall, a concern among party professionals who fret that prospects of a big Schwarzenegger win could depress turnout and hurt other Democratic candidates and causes on the November ballot.

A few congressional contests in California appear somewhat competitive.

Topping the list for most political handicappers are the seats held by Republican Reps. Richard W. Pombo of Tracy and John T. Doolittle of Roseville, both of whom have been brushed by scandal.

Another race that Democrats are eyeing is the San Diego-area seat held by Republican Brian Bilbray, who won a special election in June to replace the disgraced ex-lawmaker Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Many of those interviewed said they were more interested in the fight for control of Congress than the race for governor and hoped to be part of an anti-Republican wave they see building nationwide.

"I think there's a real tide turning," said Douglas Hall, 62, a photographer and teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. "I think Democrats are responsive to that."

National polls have shown much greater intensity — that is, the degree to which people are motivated to vote — among Democrats than among Republicans.

Nearly 60% of Democratic voters nationwide said they have given a lot of thought to this election, up from 46% at this point in the 2002 election, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Republicans, by contrast, were no more energized than they were for the midterm election four years ago.

About half of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about voting than usual, according to the Pew poll — conducted before the latest spate of bad news from Iraq — compared to a third of Republicans.

If Angelides' troubles have put a damper on the party faithful in California, that was not evident among those interviewed.

The issues that were topmost in their minds — the war in Iraq, the perceived infringement on civil liberties, the influence of the religious right — are ones playing out in Washington, not the ones in Sacramento.

Melanie Burkhardt, 57 and retired from a phone company, put down her copy of Coastal Living magazine and fumed about Bush and the Republican-run Congress. It was a sunny day in the San Gabriel Valley.

But Burkhardt was disgusted with the direction of the country — "it's a nightmare" — and said electing a Democratic Congress was "much more important" than the gubernatorial campaign.

Back in Oakland, Steve Cohen agreed.

"I'm very cynical in general about the governor of California. I think they're all pretty bad," the 49-year-old nutrition consultant said, as he toted a catch of salmon from an upscale market. "I'm a lot more interested in congressional and Senate seats."

The surge of Schwarzenegger has given rise to Republican hopes that he might pull several other candidates — for lieutenant governor, attorney general, controller and other offices — into office along with him

Several Democrats expressed distaste for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who flopped in the 2003 recall election and has taken a battering in television ads by his millionaire rival for insurance commissioner, Silicon Valley mogul Steve Poizner.

"He smells bad," Mar Vista tennis teacher John Edwards, 51, said at the mention of Bustamante.

"I don't like some of the things he's done with campaign contributions from insurance companies," Eric Westrope, a 35-year-old Monrovia real estate investor, said from a sidewalk table outside Monrovia Coffee Co.

But Kevin McBrien, a 62-year-old Catholic priest, spoke for many of his fellow Democrats when he described his likely support for Schwarzenegger as the exception to what will be an otherwise straight-party vote — a choice that he found not all that difficult to swallow.

"Actually," McBrien said, as he hurried down Oakland's College Avenue to a noon theology course, the governor seems "more Democratic than Republican."


mark.barabak@latimes.commichael.finnegan@latimes.com

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