Governor's Move to Middle Hinders Rivals

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's drive to recapture his image as a political centrist will make it harder for the two Democrats vying for his job to cast him as a conservative Republican out of step with middle-of-the-road Californians.

In a State of the State speech Thursday that framed his campaign for reelection, Schwarzenegger minimized opportunities for the Democrats -- state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly -- to draw sharp contrasts with him.

Neither Democrat could much fault Schwarzenegger's calls for vast public construction projects, a higher minimum wage, cheaper prescription drugs or a freeze in university enrollment fees -- even if they questioned the timing or details. By and large, he was pushing ideas long championed by Democrats.

The governor's new focus on matters with potentially broad appeal marks a sharp departure from his strategy last year of playing to his conservative base with an agenda that antagonized Democrats and organized labor.

By neutralizing some key issues, his political shift also heightens the likelihood of a gubernatorial race defined as much by disputes about character as by partisan divisions, analysts say. A central question is apt to be whether Schwarzenegger is motivated more by core beliefs or a quest for personal success.

"It would be very hard for someone to determine from these various positions precisely what Schwarzenegger stands for," said Thomas Hollihan, a media and politics professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

In the two months since voters rejected ballot measures he described as crucial to California's future, Schwarzenegger's moderate moves have largely been a matter of emphasis, not substance.

His support for raising the minimum wage, for example, is long-standing, but he drew more attention to it Thursday by bringing it up in a high-profile speech. (He still disagrees with Democrats on how much and how fast.)

Nonetheless, Angelides and Westly have seized on Schwarzenegger's lurch toward the center to portray him as unprincipled and untrustworthy. To the extent voters are paying attention at this opening stage of the race, the Democrats' attacks are aimed at extending the political damage inflicted on Schwarzenegger last year by union television ads that hammered him for breaking a deal to restore billions of dollars in school spending.

In the Assembly chamber after Schwarzenegger's speech, Angelides said the governor's newly announced plans had "no credibility."

"He's a governor who has cut education, made it harder for kids to go to college, absolutely failed to invest in our infrastructure," said Angelides. In Los Angeles earlier this week, Angelides accused the governor of trying to "fake" support for working Californians as a ploy to win a second term.

Still, Schwarzenegger's appeals to moderates in recent weeks have left Angelides and Westly straining to stay on the offensive. In an interview, Westly applauded the governor for "taking some steps in the right direction" on school spending, the minimum wage and legalizing imports of medicine. But he recalled Schwarzenegger's resistance to such steps last year.

"We're looking for some evidence of core values," Westly said. "I don't know what he believes."

Day by day, Angelides and Westly -- the only major candidates so far in June's Democratic primary -- both have had to recalibrate their message as Schwarzenegger has revealed his plans for 2006.

The governor's proposal this week to increase school spending by $4 billion came just hours before a news conference Angelides had called to urge Schwarzenegger to put more money into education. As a result, Angelides was forced to argue that the governor's plan to do exactly that simply "falls short of the promises that he made."

Standing alongside Angelides was another Democrat, state Public Instruction Supt. Jack O'Connell, who pronounced the governor's move "a good beginning."

"We had to do a little semi-pirouette," O'Connell acknowledged after the event.

In a similar vein, Westly and Angelides have each called for infrastructure investments like those proposed by Schwarzenegger. In responding to his proposal, both have tried to shore up their credentials as fiscal conservatives.

Westly released what he called a "strict accountability and oversight plan" for the borrowing to ensure the money is not squandered "on pork-barrel projects for politicians."

Schwarzenegger advisors acknowledge that he has adjusted the mix of issues he is stressing as the campaign season opens. They also welcome the growing difficulty that Westly and Angelides face in criticizing the governor on ideological grounds.

"As he's able to occupy center ground, which is where a majority of California voters are, it leaves little room for the Democrats to operate within," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director.

Whatever the cause of Schwarzenegger's political zigzag -- some analysts attribute it partly to his inexperience in public office -- it has not been subtle. In his opening months as governor, he kept his vow to champion bipartisanship, guiding the state through the worst of its fiscal crisis by joining Westly and other Democrats in backing a $15-billion debt plan that voters approved in March 2004.

Schwarzenegger soon switched tactics, however, campaigning to oust Democrats from the Legislature and reelect President Bush, whose red-state brand of Republican politics is highly unpopular in California. Schwarzenegger's proposals last year to overhaul state budget and election rules further enraged Democratic lawmakers and organized labor, prompting the TV ad assault that drove his November election debacle.

Since then, Schwarzenegger has veered back to the middle, touching off a revolt among conservative loyalists. Among other things, he hired a Democrat as his new chief of staff and embraced the immense debt plan that he outlined Thursday for schools, highways and other projects. He also has distanced himself from Bush by challenging Republicans in Washington to allow imports of prescription drugs.

"He's given the administration and Congress time to work on this, and nothing happened, so he's elevating his call to legalize importation," Stutzman said.

Taken together, Schwarzenegger's recent moves appear aimed directly at swing voters, for the most part the independents and moderate Democrats whose support any Republican needs to win a state election in California, where just over a third of registered voters belong to the GOP.

"This is about making sure that his Democratic opponent in the general doesn't get a lot of traction," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, a friend and advisor to Westly.

Still, the recent uproar among conservatives over Schwarzenegger's appointment of Democrat Susan Kennedy as his top aide underlines the risk that his effort to reposition himself could weaken his Republican support.

"It's like cutting off the end of a blanket and sewing it on the other end," Westly campaign strategist Garry South said.

Yet long before voters start sizing up Schwarzenegger and his eventual Democratic rival, Westly and Angelides are preparing for a scrappy primary fight. In the absence of much disagreement between them on issues, that race, too, is shaping up as one in which character attacks are likely to be paramount.

So far, Angelides has tried to ignore Westly and stay focused on Schwarzenegger. Westly, however, has been needling Angelides, demanding that he release 10 years of tax returns and accusing him of excessive secrecy about his finances. South, Westly's senior strategist, said Angelides fears damage from revelations about his "entangling alliances" as a Sacramento developer.

Previous rivals have depicted Angelides' projects as promoting sprawl and ravaging the environment. Well-known for aggressive campaign tactics, Angelides has signaled he is bracing for similar attacks. Responding to Schwarzenegger's construction proposals, he said they must not "degrade the environment with more sprawl."

"If the Westly campaign believes that a brutal negative assault is the way they're going to win the primary, I think they're sadly mistaken," Angelides pollster Paul Maslin said.

At the same time, he added, "I'm not going to say there's not going to be elbows out."

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