Ken Garcia: Angelides’ late moves offer too little and come far too late

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Phil Angelides and his supporters were said to be fuming over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s guest spot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’’ last week because the Democratic candidate was not offered equal time.

But late-night television is really no different than a political campaign. In the end it’s all about appearances and ratings — two areas in which Angelides is faring poorly.

Angelides’ campaign has been so out of focus that in the only televised debate between the two candidates, he had trouble finding which camera to look into. His most recent ads try to introduce him as some kind of ‘60s lefty, right down to the Nixon-bashing headlines.

The only problem, political strategists say, is that the ads trying to tell voters who he is and why they should vote for him should have been the first spots aired months ago, when a good percentage of California voters didn’t know who he was. More people may know now, but the polls show that that hasn’t made them like him any better.

It was just the latest in a series of missteps that have given Schwarzenegger a steady and commanding double-digit lead in the polls and the reason many other Democratic candidates in the state have gone to some lengths to distance themselves from Angelides.

Indeed, his campaign appears to be bucking a national trend, with Democrats liking their chances at seizing Congress because of unhappiness with the Bush White House and leading Republicans. Yet in what is a considerably reliable Democratic state, Republicans have a chance to win several statewide elections, in large part because of Schwarzenegger’s star presence and his ability to strike deals with Democrats and show bipartisan support for a number of major bond measures on the November ballot.

Veteran Republican political consultant Dan Schnur said the governor’s race shows what happens when one candidate veers to his party’s extreme and the other one claims the center.

“It would be a mistake for Democrats to blame all of Angelides’ problems on the campaign,’’ Schnur said. “The real difference is that he has an agenda that is not acceptable to the mainstream in California. The campaign was essentially won when Arnold went back to the center and Phil Angelides promised to raise taxes.’’

Still, Schnur said, it didn’t help that the Democratic candidate decided to run attack ads against Schwarzenegger, which he aimed at the failed reform candidate of 2005, not the newly minted moderate of 2006.

“You often see a challenger get so entranced by his opponent’s vulnerabilities that they forget to tell people who they are first,’’ Schnur said. “And until last week the only thing most people knew about Phil Angelides was what Arnold Schwarzenegger told them. It’s not that loyal Democrats are switching sides. It’s just that independent voters are not joining them.’’

So rather than tell California voters why he was a better candidate, Angelides tried to paint Schwarzenegger as a Republican pawn who implicitly supported the Iraq war. But polls show that most state voters saw Schwarzenegger as a pragmatic deal maker who used the campaign to refashion his pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-education credentials.

While Angelides was trying to gain traction with the party’s liberal base by saying he would pull California’s National Guard troops out of Iraq, the governor was using his campaign stops to sign bills raising the minimum wage and restoring school money he had taken earlier to balance the budget. And he traveled the state with top Democratic lawmakers to push for a $37 billion bond initiative to fix the state’s fragile infrastructure.

And perhaps just as important, the governor dropped the confrontational rhetoric he used last year to take on unions in his disastrous special election, instead adopting the smiling, confident stance he displayed throughout the fall.

Angelides has worked overtime trying to convince voters that the “new’’ Schwarzenegger is just the latest political persona adopted by the former actor. But the flip-flop charge doesn’t work so well in this case because there is a reason that Schwarzenegger became one of the most popular movie stars in the world — people actually like him.

And he does draw audiences, which is why Phil Angelides may make “Meet the Press’’ but he won’t be sharing couch time with Heidi Klum on a late-night comedy show.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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