Brutal Democratic primary leaves Arnold licking his chops

Now that fellow Democrats — Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly — have finished beating each other senseless in one of the nastiest gubernatorial primaries in recent memory, it’s time to announce Tuesday’s big winner: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The two Democrats who have been vying for the state’s top political job can’t be blamed for the voter apathy that characterized this election. But they certainly made leading contributions — framing their campaigns with negative attack ads that turned voters off and set the tone for what was largely a lackluster state primary. The fact that more than a quarter of all Democratic voters were still undecided about who to choose for governor last week speaks volumes about the candidates and raises serious questions about their ability to mount an effective campaign in the fall.

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

And, of course, if you’re funding your campaign from your own deep pockets, the question becomes: How much are you willing to spend on what is the ultimate vanity project, especially when facing someone who has shown an undeniable ability to raise cash?

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, many nonpartisan “swing’’ voters not registered to either party are moving into Schwarzenegger’s camp, which will probably be the key factor come November.

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.

Even school funding — which normally would have been a hot-button issue for Democrats — has been erased under the governor’s proposed budget, in which he’s offering to put up more than $2 billion of the surplus for education.

Moreover, the state’s economic rebound has allowed the governor to maintain his promise not to raise taxes, whereas the Democrats have said they’ll do the opposite — perhaps not the best platform to run on in tax-weary California.

The governor’s perceived vulnerability in November is that the unions that he took on during last year’s ill-fated special election will be enough to help push the Democrats over the top. That strategy is based on tying Schwarzenegger directly to an increasingly unpopular president and other Republicans who are scurrying to hold on to once-untouchable congressional seats.

But the X-factor in the race, as is often the case in celebrity-rich California, will be how much state voters still like one of the world’s most popular film stars. And in that regard, Schwarzenegger is going to have a considerable edge on his charisma-challenged opponent.

Just ask the millions of voters who gave a big thumbs-down to the Democratic hopefuls by not turning out on Tuesday.

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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