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Angelides Seen as a Drag on the Party

Times Staff Writers

Worried Democrats said Sunday that Phil Angelides failed to achieve the breakthrough he needed in the sole gubernatorial debate and expressed fear that his campaign’s trajectory threatened others on the statewide ticket.

Fellow Democrat John Garamendi, in a tight race for lieutenant governor against Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, has started to distance himself from Angelides. He said in a television interview aired Sunday that he disagreed with an Angelides plan to raise taxes on corporations and the well-to-do.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Garamendi, now insurance commissioner, said on KNBC’s “News Conference.”

Though few thought Angelides did poorly in the debate, there was wide agreement that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger benefited the most from Saturday night’s allotted 55-minute session, largely because nothing occurred to change the essential dynamic of the race.

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Angelides, the state treasurer, entered the evening desperately needing to redefine a contest that by all measures -- polling, fundraising, party morale -- was going badly for him. And he needed the lift not just for himself, but for fellow Democratic candidates counting on him to spur a strong turnout Nov. 7.

On Sunday, the example cited repeatedly by Angelides’ disappointed party brethren was the 1994 election, when then-Treasurer Kathleen Brown lost in a landslide and dragged several fellow Democrats down with her.

“When you have a situation like we had in 1994, when the top of the ticket collapses, it clearly has a downdraft effect,” said Democratic strategist Garry South.

He said it was time for “triage” and a shift of party resources from Angelides to the races of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and controller. Though some may detect a whiff of sour grapes (South ran the campaign of Angelides’ primary rival, Steve Westly), others also expressed concerns about a 1994 rerun and a determination to avert it.

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“This year, we have no intention of allowing that to happen if the momentum in the governor’s race doesn’t shift our way,” said Los Angeles County Democratic Chairman Eric Bauman, an advisor to Garamendi.

Angelides, who set off Sunday on a two-day bus tour from Los Angeles through the Central Valley to San Francisco, brushed off talk that he might harm the rest of the ticket, saying 2006 would turn out to be a good year for Democrats in California. “I’m not daunted by any of this,” he said aboard his bus, covered in a blue sleeve bearing his new campaign slogan: “Always On Your Side.”

Schwarzenegger, meantime, spent an hour Sunday afternoon visiting Parents of Watts, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for the homeless, day care and job training in South Los Angeles. He touched only briefly on the debate.

“I was happy about last night’s debate,” he said. “I want to move the state forward, and I think people got that message.”

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Angelides -- who was joined at a Westside parking-lot rally Sunday by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and three fellow Democrats on the statewide ballot -- said he felt great about the debate.

“For the first time, many Californians got to see where the governor would take California and where I would take California,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is locked in a tight race for insurance commissioner, said he expected Angelides to win. Even if he loses, Bustamante said, Californians have a long history of electing Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot.

“People make their own choices,” said Bustamante, who accompanied Angelides on Sunday along with Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a candidate for treasurer, and Board of Equalization member John Chiang, who is running for controller.

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Others were less sure. Bauman, for one, said the Democrats running statewide “understand that turnout is driven by the top of the ticket.”

“If the top of the ticket falters, they can be brought down as well, as occurred in 1994,” he said.

In that year, Brown ran a disastrous campaign that wound up flat broke, forcing her to abandon the TV airwaves and essentially cede the race by the final weekend.

The result, senior party advisor Bob Mulholland said afterward, was “a train wreck with no survivors.” Republicans picked up five statewide offices, double what they had held the two previous decades.

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Parke Skelton, a strategist for Chiang and secretary of state candidate Debra Bowen, said polling suggests that many Democrats who break ranks to vote for Schwarzenegger will switch back to support their own party’s contenders in other races.

But as Republicans gain confidence that Schwarzenegger holds a lock on reelection, the state GOP could divert more money from the gubernatorial contest to other races, Skelton said.

“That’s my big concern about what’s happening at the governor’s level,” said Skelton, citing the tens of thousands of dollars state Republican committees have recently funneled to GOP controller candidate Tony Strickland.

Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party, dismissed the nervousness among the faithful. “The political hand-wringing always occurs,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business.”

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Noting that he was a victim of the 1994 GOP landslide -- he lost his bid for state insurance commissioner -- Torres said the party and its labor allies would aggressively promote the entire ticket through phone calls, mail and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“As chairman of the party, I’m very sensitive to that,” Torres said. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through in 1994.”

A recent Times poll underscored the fragility of the Democratic effort this year. Despite the left-moderate tilt of the state, Democrats held sizable leads in only two of eight statewide partisan races: Feinstein’s Senate reelection effort and former Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid for attorney general. In the other down-ballot races, Democrats were either tied or winning narrowly.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


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