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On to November

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NOW THAT CALIFORNIA’S primary season is over, voters have at least one thing to look forward to: silence. And they better enjoy it because it won’t last long. The Democrats’ shrill and shallow campaign ads may be off the air, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embarks today on a statewide bus tour. Maybe the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary can take a few days, a few hours -- OK, a few minutes -- to pause and consider how to articulate a more positive message about the state’s future.

The primary did little to boost the enthusiasm Democrats feel for their state candidates, and voters were also skeptical about two ballot measures to increase public spending on preschool and libraries. Regardless of whether the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is state Treasurer Phil Angelides or state Controller Steve Westly -- and the race was too close to call even hours after the polls closed -- he will have plenty of work to do before the final contest against Schwarzenegger on Nov. 7.

In the next five months, the Democratic candidate must show that he can repair the damage done to himself, his party and electoral politics in general by the recent weeks of cynical and self-defeating campaigning. If he expects to beat Schwarzenegger, he must rally voters by articulating how he can lead California in meeting a host of challenges. He must inspire confidence in his plans to deal with state finances, housing, transportation, healthcare, immigration and the environment, to name but a few of the state’s pressing issues.

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It’s not enough to be smart, innovative and straightforward. He must also earn the trust of voters who are increasingly wary about where candidates get their campaign money and how they pad their resumes. And he must lay out, in greater detail and more convincing fashion, his plan to deal with the state’s structural deficit.

Schwarzenegger, too, has his work cut out for him. He’s riding high on the back of unexpectedly rosy revenues, and he now looks like a reliable senior statesman next to the squabbling Angelides and Westly. But if voters are to pick Schwarzenegger for four more years, they must know which version they will get.

Will he be the independent who ousted Gray Davis and called for an end to Sacramento politics as usual? Or the partisan who tried and failed to ram a slate of overreaching ballot measures past voters in a special election? Or the consensus-builder who worked with the Legislature to craft a budget and get a massive rebuilding bond on the November ballot? Or all of the above?

Political professionals often like it when voters are disgusted. They like targeting their campaigns to relatively small numbers of high-propensity voters, and Tuesday’s election was notable for its low turnout. But both the Democrats and Schwarzenegger would do well to remember Davis and the 2003 recall -- and to keep in mind the voters’ skeptical attitude toward both ballot propositions on Tuesday’s ballot. Voter disgust can be hard to control.

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