Angelides Is Trying to Lean to the Center

Times Staff Writer

In his opening days as the Democratic nominee for governor, state Treasurer Phil Angelides has moved to broaden his appeal to mainstream Californians by casting himself as a fiscal conservative and champion of the middle class.

Trying to reach beyond his liberal base, Angelides argued in a television ad released Wednesday that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had burdened taxpayers with too much debt. He also vowed to balance the state’s books and “put a stop to tax hikes on middle-class families,” taking a swipe at Schwarzenegger for increases in college tuition and fees.

For Angelides, a key question is whether this approach can blunt Schwarzenegger’s attacks on his plans to raise taxes on corporations and high-income Californians. Schwarzenegger has used those proposals to portray his challenger as out of step with middle-of-the-road voters. That group of socially moderate and fiscally conservative Californians will, in essence, pick the winner of the November election.

“Angelides has got to claim back some of that middle territory that Schwarzenegger’s been trying to get his hands on,” said Samuel Popkin, a UC San Diego political science professor.


Angelides, he said, is fighting the traditional battle of a Democrat trying to stop a Republican rival from defining him as a tax-and-spend liberal. “He’s trying to be reassuring without being defensive, and it’s very hard,” Popkin said.

Heightening the difficulty are Schwarzenegger’s moves this year to restore his image as a moderate, an effort which has led to a rebound in his poll ratings. This week alone, Schwarzenegger spoke out against global warming at a conference of western governors and called for new education spending during visits to schools in San Luis Obispo and Sacramento.

But since Angelides defeated state Controller Steve Westly in the Democratic primary last week, most of the sparring between Schwarzenegger and his rival has been over taxes. Schwarzenegger started the jousting with a huge advantage: millions of dollars worth of Westly ads that warned television viewers of “massive” tax hikes that Angelides might impose.

Schwarzenegger has echoed that theme in his own television ads this week. One of them tries to frame the Nov. 7 general-election debate with an accusation that Angelides wants to “take California backwards” to an era “when soaring taxes forced jobs and businesses to flee our state.” The spot shows a seagull, cars and people moving backward, and one of them is Angelides.

Angelides countered Wednesday with an ad that shows a motorcyclist driving backward to the sound of music played in reverse. By implication, the motorcyclist is former actor Schwarzenegger, a rider in his private life and in his movie role as “The Terminator.”

“Backwards?” an announcer asks. “It’s Schwarzenegger who’s taking us backwards, with billions in corporate tax giveaways, cuts to schools. And just like George Bush, Schwarzenegger’s saddled us with billions in debt.”

Schwarzenegger’s heavy reliance on debt to balance the state budget has long irked his conservative base, a breach that Angelides is trying to exploit at a time when many Republicans are also angry at Bush over the surge in the national debt.

In a state where Bush is extremely unpopular -- his approval rating among California voters hit a record low of 28% in the latest Field Poll -- Angelides is also trying to use Schwarzenegger’s political ties to the president to make broader gains. Schwarzenegger campaigned for Bush’s reelection, but has also tried to distance himself from the president.

Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles campaign ad maker hired by Angelides for the November race, said there was an “eerie parallel” between the way Bush had run the nation’s fiscal affairs and the way Schwarzenegger had managed the state’s.

When it comes to his overall record as governor, Carrick said, Californians have seen little more than “a deep commitment to bus tours and buying television ads promoting failed initiatives.”

Notably absent from the Angelides ad is his call for higher income taxes for Californians earning more than $500,000 a year, a staple of his pitch during the primary.

“It’s clear from Phil Angelides’ defensive ad that he’s having a difficult time explaining away his campaign promises that amount to at least $10 billion in increased taxes,” said Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman Matt David.

The Angelides campaign puts the cost of his tax increases at $5 billion, saying other tax hikes that he backed over the years are not part of his agenda.

Whatever the amount, Schwarzenegger campaign manager Steve Schmidt said the Democrat’s call for higher taxes puts him “far outside the mainstream” of California voters. “He is an unabashed, old-school, old-fashion liberal who wants to raise taxes by a lot, and I just don’t think that’s where the state is,” Schmidt said.

To rebut such charges, Angelides says his proposed tax increases mirror those enacted by two Republican governors -- Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson -- and a Democratic president -- Bill Clinton. By Carrick’s account, the idea that Angelides is an extremist is “all fantasy, and a delusional concoction of their campaign.”

Beyond fiscal matters, Angelides has also been trying to undercut public trust in Schwarzenegger by spotlighting what he says are inconsistencies in his record, particularly on healthcare. Campaigning over the last week at health clinics in East Los Angeles and San Francisco, he has accused Schwarzenegger of breaking his 2003 pledge to expand access to health coverage for children.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have provided health coverage to hundreds of thousands of children, saying the Legislature had failed to identify a source of money to pay for it. At his campaign stops last week in the Central Valley, Schwarzenegger vowed to make wider access to health coverage a priority in his second term.

As for the Angelides effort to raise doubts about Schwarzenegger’s character, the governor’s campaign manager suggested it would be fair to raise questions about the treasurer’s ties to a Sacramento developer.

Angelides, himself a former Sacramento developer, is a longtime investment partner of Angelo Tsakopoulos, whose real-estate empire spent $8.7 million promoting Angelides’ campaign.

“At a minimum,” Schmidt said, “Angelides should answer some questions about that donation, whether he thinks that’s appropriate or not appropriate.”