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Head-On Brawling From Left and Center

Times Staff Writer

With the brutal Democratic primary for governor drawing to a close Tuesday, rivals Phil Angelides and Steve Westly are battling over the same question that has convulsed the party nationwide: Would a liberal or a moderate stand the best chance in the fall?

Withering character attacks have obscured the ideological contrasts between Angelides, the state treasurer, and Westly, the controller. But each has taken a distinct approach to building voter support, with Angelides relying heavily on liberals and Westly aiming more for moderates.

The same split has long marked party contests for Congress and the White House. This year, some moderate Democrats in Congress who voted for the use of force in Iraq face antiwar primary challengers who are appealing to the party’s liberal base.

In the race for governor, the main battlefield has been taxes. Angelides calls for “multimillionaires and big corporations” to pay more. Westly vows tough fiscal management to minimize the need to raise taxes. In fact, both Democrats support some tax hikes, but Angelides has called for more, and he alone has made them a central part of his campaign platform.

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The debate is also a matter of tone. Angelides takes a combative approach to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Bush and other Republicans, while Westly calls bipartisanship the key to getting things done in Sacramento.

On Sunday in San Francisco, Angelides told parishioners at Glide Memorial Church that he would make California “a progressive beacon of hope,” where the well-to-do would sacrifice more for public schools and healthcare. An outspoken critic of Bush’s tax cuts, he said California must reverse “this assault from the right that says if we just give more to the rich, somehow we all are enriched.”

Westly, speaking in a KABC-TV Channel 7 interview Sunday, called his opponent’s focus on tax increases “the wrong approach.” He also pledged to “bring both sides of the aisle together to find common-sense solutions” to California’s problems.

Polls suggest both candidates are making advances with their respective constituencies: Angelides has pulled ahead among liberals likely to vote in the primary, and Westly holds an edge among moderates.

But to beat Schwarzenegger, the winner of the Democratic nomination must reach for support among independents and Republicans, a task that some analysts see as more difficult for Angelides given his liberal positioning in the primary.

“This is a classic struggle, and it happens on the left and the right,” said Frank Gilliam, a professor of political science at UCLA. “How do you reach partisans in a primary while you leave room to appeal to moderates in the general election?”

For decades, Republicans in California have faced a struggle between their party’s conservative and moderate wings. In the Republican primary for governor in 2002, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan campaigned as a moderate with broad enough appeal to unseat the unpopular Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis. But Republicans opted instead for social conservative Bill Simon, which enabled Davis to run as the mainstream candidate -- and win.

The Westly campaign argues that a similar dynamic is at work in the Democratic primary for governor.

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In mailings to voters over the last week, Westly has trumpeted polls that suggest he would do better against Schwarzenegger than Angelides would. One mailing calls Westly the Democrat who can “beat Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

“California campaigns are always a battle for the center,” said Garry South, a Westly strategist. “They’re not a fight for the far left. They’re certainly not a fight to see who can raise taxes the most, and that’s where the Angelides campaign is completely off-base.”

Angelides, however, says Democrats must offer a stark contrast with Republicans. He was Schwarzenegger’s most vocal Democratic critic when the governor was at the height of his popularity, and has made that a top selling point.

“The only way we’re going to win this race is not by nominating Arnold-also,” he told reporters last week in Manhattan Beach.

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“We are going to win this race by offering a clear alternative vision that moves California forward in a different direction than Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Angelides compared his own situation to that of Ronald Reagan, whom many Republicans viewed as too conservative to win the presidency. “In 1980,” Angelides said, “Republican-insider smart guys said, ‘Don’t ever nominate that Ronald Reagan. He believes too deeply. He can’t win.’ ”

Angelides has focused for months on the party’s liberal base. In an interview in March on Air America, the liberal radio network, he complained that “the right” had succeeded in framing the nation’s public debate.

“Can you imagine that each year we quibble about whether we get 1 or 2 billion more for kids when the wealthiest interests in this country are walking away with more loot than they’ve had since the Gilded Age?” he asked.

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Angelides advisors say it was a strategic misstep for Westly to position himself as a moderate and centrist in the primary at a time when California Democrats -- and many independents -- are seething at Bush and the Republican Congress.

“What Democrats want to see is someone in the ring with boxing gloves,” said senior Angelides advisor Bob Mulholland, who described Westly as “wet toast” in a contest with Schwarzenegger.

Joseph Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State, said sharply partisan candidates can widen their base in a general-election campaign with an appealing personality, but he questioned whether either Democrat running for governor possesses one.

“A candidate who doesn’t really connect with voters cannot afford to take positions that alienate lots of them,” Tuman said.

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He also said that the debate between liberals and moderates in the Democratic contest for governor “mirrors the conflict nationally,” particularly on Iraq. In the Democratic presidential contest of 2004, many liberals rallied behind Howard Dean, a staunch critic of the war. But Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who voted to authorize the war, won the nomination, thanks partly to the hope of some that a strong stand on national defense could help the party reclaim the White House.

This year, the war is resonating again as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and other Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq face a liberal backlash. In Tuesday’s primary, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) is facing antiwar challenger Marcy Winograd.

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Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Robert Salladay contributed to this report.

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