SACRAMENTO — In his first six weeks as the Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Angelides has struggled to define a clear campaign message and been outspent and often outmaneuvered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This weekend, the state Democratic Party is launching a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign to reintroduce Angelides to voters. The party's opening ad contrasts Angelides with Schwarzenegger, calling the Democrat "a leader, not an actor."
A key goal of the new advertising, political observers say, is to repair damage already inflicted on Angelides by Schwarzenegger and state Controller Steve Westly, his opponent in the primary.
As the Democratic nominee in a heavily Democratic state, Angelides carries considerable advantages. The national political climate for Republicans is poor, with President Bush's conduct of the Iraq war a major drag on the party's standing with voters.
Also, polls show widespread distaste for officeholders in general, which could lead to a backlash against the incumbent governor. And Schwarzenegger has yet to fully recover from the political debacle suffered last year when he pursued an agenda that enraged Democrats and organized labor.
Yet since defeating Westly in the June primary, Angelides, the state treasurer, appears to have foundered for several reasons.
With only a scant television ad presence since the primary, Angelides remains a mystery to many voters. His trouble articulating a clear message is part of the problem, some Democratic supporters say. And, as is common with challengers facing incumbents, many of his campaign events have been in reaction to Schwarzenegger, putting Angelides in a defensive posture made all the more uncomfortable by his campaign theme of raising taxes.
Another problem is organized labor. The coalition of unions that was pounding Schwarzenegger relentlessly a year ago is not entirely united behind Angelides. The prison guards union, which produced tough TV ads against the governor last year, has not taken sides this year. Like the California Teachers Assn., it has been working more with Schwarzenegger on its policy agenda than it has with Angelides.
At times, the Angelides campaign has also been slow to take action. For months, allies have complained that the candidate's micromanagement of his campaign has slowed decisions. The rapid-response communications operation that is a staple of any modern campaign has lagged: It took Angelides' aides more than 12 hours last week to criticize Schwarzenegger's latest remarks renewing his support for the civilian Minuteman border patrol force.
Amid all that, Schwarzenegger and the state Republican Party have unleashed a $12-million onslaught of ads castigating Angelides, mainly on taxes. Most recently, the ads have criticized his environmental record as a developer.
Political analysts say the TV attacks are dangerous even in the doldrums of July. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, also a Democrat, all ran summer campaigns to tarnish their opponents and won.
"I've seen this act before," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book election guide. "It's very dangerous to get defined in the summer. People's opinions tend to harden before the campaign season."
Notable at this stage in the campaign has been Angelides' seeming inability to corral the Democratic Party and its allies. Already, some prominent Democrats have taken swipes at his campaign, veiled and otherwise.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been aloof about endorsing him.
Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, once the most powerful Democrat in California, said in a radio interview this week that Angelides needed a "transfusion" and warned him against debating Schwarzenegger more than once: "If he tries to go one on one with the Terminator, he's terminated," Brown said on KQKE-AM (960) in San Francisco.
At the same time, the Republican governor is using the power of his state office to generate more media coverage and attention than Angelides. He has shown up at levees being repaired, a Girls State conference, a Latino health center, high school drama classes, the Mexican border, an ethanol plant, and, in a bright yellow jacket, among firefighters at the Southern California wildfires.
Helped by Democrats in the Legislature, Schwarzenegger also scored a critical political victory by signing the state's budget on time this summer.
A statewide poll this month showed Schwarzenegger with a comfortable lead among voters, receiving 44% support compared with 37% for Angelides. In March, Schwarzenegger was leading 40% to 37% in a hypothetical matchup.
According to the poll, taken by the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, 37% of voters could not offer any opinion about Angelides.
"That is a very difficult problem for Angelides, who still remains somewhat undefined for people who aren't in the know, average voters," said Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute.
Angelides' campaign advisors say the governor's summer ads have been a waste of money. They reject the idea that people pay attention to politics in the summer, and they point out that Schwarzenegger is recycling accusations leveled by Westly — who lost.
Bill Carrick, a senior Angelides strategist, said the Democrat was running a "very intense, very competitive campaign."
"It's going to be rock 'em, sock 'em from now to November," he said. "If anybody thinks otherwise, I think they're naive."
Carrick also argued that the campaign had made a successful transition from a brutal and costly Democratic primary to a general-election race against a governor who faced no party nomination fight of his own. As for the campaign's central message, he described Angelides as a "real leader who gets things done, stands up for people, middle-class families, who's running against somebody who's not done a good job, failed, has not lived up to the promise of the recall and does not appear to be up to the job."
The new party ad focuses on Angelides' record as treasurer.
"When Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to take away property tax relief for seniors, raised college tuition and fees, made drastic cuts to healthcare and schools, Phil Angelides led the fight to stop him," an announcer says. "And it was Phil Angelides who took on excessive pay for HMO executives and ended state investments in tobacco companies."
In campaign events, Angelides has attempted to carve out his own agenda: concern for the middle class, strong support for environmental protections and demands that the state overcome its chronic budget shortfalls.
Hoping to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials, he endorsed Jessica's Law, a November initiative to strengthen penalties on sex offenders, although Schwarzenegger had supported the measure months earlier.
But mostly in the last few weeks, Angelides' campaign has focused on what he sees as Schwarzenegger's failures. He has criticized the governor for ignoring stem cell research until the election neared, as well as for his handling of prisons, foreign trade, the state budget, the National Guard's border duty, college fees, and healthcare.
That emphasis, though consistent with Angelides' proud characterization of himself as the anti-Arnold, has had the effect of shifting attention from his own agenda.
Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said Angelides must energize his campaign or run the risk of letting Schwarzenegger define him through his TV ads.
"Phil needs to very quickly step up and begin telling the people of California what his vision is," Bauman said. "While being the anti-Arnold will be important in the minds of voters, you win elections by providing your own vision."
Matthew Dowd, Schwarzenegger's chief political advisor, said the "narrative" of the 2006 campaign is being written by the Republican governor, — making it all the more difficult to erase by this fall.
"It's much easier to change a slate that is blank," Dowd said, "than one that has already been written on."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times