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Angelides Has Work Cut Out for Him

Times Staff Writers

Hundreds of delegates to the state Democratic convention erupted in cheers Sunday morning as a beaming Phil Angelides -- the self-described underdog in the party’s primary for governor -- waved from the podium and vowed to halt a “30-year attack by the right” on Democratic values and to “drive Arnold Schwarzenegger from the statehouse.”

The crowd, waving blue and yellow Angelides signs, sent their newly endorsed candidate off with chants of “Go Phil, go!”

The state treasurer did, indeed, receive a huge psychological lift when he won the California Democratic Party’s endorsement for governor Saturday night. But whether that victory translates into meaningful support outside the confines of the party’s convention hall is a wide-open question.

From the start of his campaign, Angelides has been the favorite of party insiders, and he long counted on a formal endorsement as the Democrats’ institutional seal of approval.

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His win over state Controller Steve Westly -- by a lopsided 67%-28% margin among almost 1,800 delegates -- came as welcome news to a campaign that, despite its establishment dominance, has foundered in recent statewide polls. A Los Angeles Times poll published Saturday showed Angelides trailing Westly by 13 percentage points.

The Angelides campaign team sees little difference between the party hard core -- those who would give up a sunny weekend to listen to hours of political speeches -- and the ranks of everyday Democrats and independents who will vote in the June 6 primary.

“This is an angry Democratic primary electorate,” said Bob Mulholland, a senior Angelides advisor. “What the Democratic voters want is someone to stand up and take punches at Schwarzenegger and Bush.”

But Westly has taken his own shots at Schwarzenegger and President Bush in his ubiquitous TV spots, telling voters that he stood up to the governor on school cuts and took on the president on offshore oil drilling. Westly, a dot-com mogul, has tapped his personal wealth to reach a broader swath of Californians with those ads than Angelides has in his commercials.

Still, for Angelides the endorsement could serve as a significant cue for Democrats at a time when polls show many voters know little about the candidates vying to carry their party’s standard into the fall campaign. “People figure we’ve vetted the candidates,” said Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

More practically, the party also will help Angelides -- and save him money -- by sending mail to voters urging them to the polls in June. Those mailings will be strictly positive, said Torres, who was among the first to urge the candidates to wage a high-road campaign.

“Whoever wins -- and we want Phil to win, because he’s our endorsed candidate -- but whoever wins, we want him to be strong against Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Torres said in an interview Sunday.

Organized labor had previously endorsed Angelides, and remains a vital source of his strength. Union leaders said the party’s support would have little influence on their spending plans. Still, a failure to win the endorsement Saturday night “would have been a huge blow to him from the standpoint of what labor might or might not have done,” said a union strategist who would not discuss the subject publicly.

Even with the party’s support, Angelides’ labor backers said it will be a challenge to overcome Westly’s financial edge. The former EBay executive has put $22.5 million into his campaign for the nomination, and advisors promise he will spend even more.

Not surprisingly, strategist Garry South of the Westly camp played down the impact of the Democratic endorsement.

“If Phil Angelides has fallen way behind with all of the other legions of credentials he claims, one more endorsement is hardly going to bail him out,” South said. “He’s not selling well to the voters. That’s his basic problem.”

The obvious comparison is with 1990, the last time the state Democratic Party made a formal endorsement in a contested primary for governor. Then, as now, there was an establishment-backed candidate, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, running against an opponent with little institutional support, in that case Dianne Feinstein, then the former mayor of San Francisco.

Like Angelides, Van de Kamp entered the state party convention in desperate need of a lift after months of lackluster campaigning.

Unlike Angelides, Van de Kamp just barely won the delegates’ endorsement -- by a margin of five votes after a recount that stole much of the bang from his achievement.

There are other key differences, as Angelides was the first to point out. “Steve Westly is no Dianne Feinstein,” he told reporters after hurrying back to the Sacramento Convention Center late Saturday night to claim victory.

And, perhaps equally significant, Angelides is no Van de Kamp, who struggled to explain to Democrats his heretical opposition to legal abortion and faced a battering in TV spots over the bungled Hillside Strangler case during his years as Los Angeles County’s district attorney.

Feinstein easily won the Democratic primary election for governor in 1990 but was narrowly defeated in the general election by Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson.

Feinstein, now a U.S. senator and California’s most popular Democrat, burst into the public’s consciousness that year with a gripping TV ad -- now considered a campaign classic -- that recounted her steady leadership after the 1978 San Francisco City Hall assassinations.

None of the ads aired so far has come close to either of those spots in capturing voter attention, and it is TV advertising, more often than not, that decides statewide elections in California. The Times poll this weekend found that almost half of the likely voters in the Democratic primary were undecided, a clear sign that neither candidate has cinched the sale.

USC political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said although the endorsement may buoy Angelides, it won’t make up for an ad campaign that she and many others consider subpar up to this point.

“He has to go back and do what he didn’t do early on, and that’s define himself,” Jeffe said. Saying, “Hi, these are my daughters, and they think I did well on Wall Street” fighting corruption -- as she characterized Angelides’ latest spot -- is not going to win him the nomination, Jeffe said. Still, winning the endorsement beats the alternative.

“Angelides dodged a very big bullet last night,” she said.


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