Brutal Democratic primary leaves Arnold licking his chops

Treasurer Phil Angelides better enjoy his short victory lap after surviving his bruising encounter against Controller Steve Westly in the Democratic primary, because now he has to run a five-month marathon — and it’s almost all uphill.

Winning a tough victory against someone who was a relative unknown to state voters a few months back is not a huge momentum-builder for Democrats, who now face the prospect of running against an incumbent with the best name recognition of any politician on the planet — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bitterly contested primaries in June always take their toll on the top vote-getter in November, since the winner has already been dragged through the mud by opponents for months and forced to raise so much cash in the process that the summer becomes a fundraising hell.

And that’s particularly true for Angelides, who reaped the benefit of a late infusion of $10 million from an independent expenditure committee put together by his developer pal Angelo Tsakopoulous. And in that single swoop, any chance of accusing Schwarzenegger of being beholden to special interests — true or not — went out the consultant’s window.

So knocking Schwarzenegger out of the statehouse this year is going to be a Herculean task for Angelides, a career politician with a history of runningsome of the most unseemly campaigns in memory. The negative attack ads that marked the primary battle turned voters off and set the tone for what was largely a lackluster campaign.

But that strategy is not likely to fare so well against Schwarzenegger, who despite his popularity dip following the special election last year is a formidable campaigner, has a positive message to sell to voters this year and has shown an undeniable ability to raise as much money as he needs or wants. Adding to that is one factor that will make him difficult to campaign against — dumb luck.

Even though polls show that nearly half of the state’s voters currently disapprove of the governor’s performance, his ratings have been going up recently and far more people still blame the Legislature for California’s woes. More important, more nonpartisan “swing” voters not registered to either party are moving into Schwarzenegger’s camp, which will probably be the key factor come November.

“His chances are improving because his standing among nonpartisans is improving,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “Once you get to Labor Day, the vast majority of Democrats and Republican will come home to their parties, and then it comes down to the 18 percent of nonpartisans to decide the race.”

And now there are fewer issues to use to try and terminate Schwarzenegger’s stay, especially with the recent announcement that California has gathered $7.5 billion in unexpected tax revenues. There’s nothing like a healthy economy to blunt a message that reform is the only answer, that change is needed at the top. Given that both Democratic candidates struggled to find a clear, coherent message during the primary, it’s not likely that they will be able to come up with one if the state’s economic forecast remains relatively rosy.

That fiscal windfall has also allowed Schwarzenegger to promise to fully fund schools — something that hadn’t happenedin the last budget cycle — creating another in the list of potential Democratic arrows that won’t be fired with any effect this fall.

And it won’t help Democrats that the economic rebound has allowed the governor to maintain his promise not to raise taxes — something the Democratic nominee has vowed to do by at least $5 billion, which is perhaps not the best platform for winning election in a state that has grown weary of new taxes and bonds.

It certainly can’t be a boost to Angelides that the top officials in his party have been barnstorming through California with Schwarzenegger trying to sell a $37 billion bond package for the state in November as part of a bipartisan pitch to help the state’s sagging infrastructure. Will the governor suddenly lack leadership on the issue?

The governor’s perceived vulnerability in November is that the unions he took on during last year’s ill-fated special election will unleash the Furies, and that labor muscle will be enough to push the Democrats over the top — especially if they can tie Schwarzenegger to an increasingly unpopular president.

But the X-factor in the race, as it often is in California, is how much state voters still like one of the world’s most popular film stars.

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