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When a crisis unfolds, incumbency has the edge

Times Staff Writers

Against the backdrop of last week’s tragic deaths of four firefighters in Riverside County came an object lesson in the power of political incumbency: At such times, the public wants to hear from elected leaders, not candidates.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the firefighters’ staging area at Noble Creek Regional Park in Beaumont on Sunday afternoon, adding to a series of official fire-related duties that have included the initial somber announcement of the deaths Thursday morning, promising a $100,000 state reward for information that leads investigators to the arsonists, and paying an off-camera visit to the family of critically injured firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, hospitalized in Colton’s Arrowhead Regional Medical Center with burns over 90% of his body.

They were the kinds of acts the public expects of a sitting governor -- and they are gestures unavailable to Democratic challenger Phil Angelides despite the strong support he enjoys from California’s firefighting unions, which have long tussled with Schwarzenegger. Shortly after the firefighters’ deaths, Angelides issued a heartfelt statement of condolences but has otherwise been forced to concede the spotlight to Schwarzenegger.

“The danger of showing up and showing concern is people will immediately say that this is about politics, while the governor can legitimately argue that it’s part of the duties of the job,” said Bruce Cain, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “It’s a disadvantage for any challenger if there is a natural disaster or crisis and the incumbent shows concern and leadership in a very general sense, sort of like Bush grabbing the bullhorn in 9/11.”

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The tragedy also pointed up how little control Angelides has at this point over his fate in next week’s vote. At a time when he had hoped voters would be tuning in to the campaign, the raging wildfires and firefighters’ deaths have dominated news and conversation in Southern California, one of the state’s strongest Democratic areas. Two Southland media events of late -- with Democratic heavyweights Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and national party Chairman Howard Dean -- were overshadowed by the wildfire news, and what coverage they received mentioned Angelides’ campaign almost as an afterthought.

Through it all, Schwarzenegger has seemed to be trailed by his own personal spotlight, the dual draw of celebrity and incumbency.

“Everywhere he goes the media follow him,” said Tom Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Sunday was a case in point. Schwarzenegger was lightly covered by media as he made stops at two African American churches in San Bernardino, and asked New Hope Missionary Baptist Church’s Rev. Floyd Lofton to lead a prayer for the critically injured firefighter. But at Beaumont the governor faced an array of 14 local and network television news cameras as he thanked the firefighters and lauded political leaders for pulling together “to make sure that everyone has what they need.”

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Angelides, meanwhile, visited four Los Angeles churches trailed by only two TV cameras. He did not ask for a prayer for the injured firefighter, missing the kind of small political detail that seems to come naturally to Schwarzenegger. Angelides acknowledged the tight spot he finds himself in, yet said he remained “undaunted by the odds.”

“I face an opponent who’s well-known to everyone, a mega-celebrity, a global action hero backed with over $100 million in big corporate contributions,” Angelides told several dozen parishioners at Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts. “It’s a tough race, but I’ve never lost faith.”

Angelides also stopped at one of California’s premier black churches, First African Methodist Episcopal in South Los Angeles. Though visiting the church is considered a must for any serious statewide Democratic candidate, Angelides didn’t seek an invitation until after Schwarzenegger had already spoken there in August.

Schwarzenegger was allowed to speak “as chief officer of the state, as opposed to a campaigner,” said Rev. John J. Hunter, First AME’s pastor. Angelides wanted to speak to the congregation Sunday but “we weren’t able to accommodate that,” Hunter said.

Angelides’ efforts have focused on trying to link Schwarzenegger with the Bush administration, hoping to capture some of the national anti-Republican mood and trying to remind voters of the Schwarzenegger who pressed last year’s costly and unsuccessful special election. Most polls show that Angelides has failed to win voters over with that strategy, yet there is no indication that the campaign intends to shift gears.

“People have notoriously short attention spans at this point,” Hollihan said. “Ideology seems to matter less at the moment than celebrity, and ‘What have you done for us lately?’ ”

Both candidates spent the last few days reaching out mostly to the same voters: traditional Democratic congregants in black churches, and the annual state NAACP convention in Oakland. Angelides was the busier of the two, on Saturday greeting African American churchgoers in the Bay Area city of Vallejo and Latinos in Boyle Heights; rallying union workers in Oakland and phone-bank volunteers in Van Nuys; precinct walking in Alameda; and nibbling fried dumplings in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

In Oakland, Angelides gave a backhanded slap to the governor’s recent centrist moves, saying Schwarzenegger deserved an award for “best performance by a Republican to be something else so he can preserve his own hide.” He said the unions’ get-out-the-vote efforts would be key to his success.

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“If we work passionately the next 10 days, if we go around the clock, if we go 24/7 ... come 8:01 on Nov. 7, the big Democratic wave that is [sweeping] the country is going to crest here,” he said. Working families “know in their gut that Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Bush won’t lift a finger for them. They are counting on us.”

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.


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