When Democratic leaders converged in San Francisco and Los Angeles this week in a concerted show of harmony in support of gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides, much of the media focus was on the two charismatic mayors of the host cities.
And that just underscores one of the many major problems Angelides faces as he enters the stretch run of what will be an increasingly bruising campaign — he’s engaged in a battle of personalities against one of the best-known people in the world.
If Angelides ends up taking a back seat to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa on the campaign trail, how well will he do face to face with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Angelides started on a down note this summer, barely surviving a tough primary contest with Steve Westly. But as he’s tried to rally and overcome what polls show is a sizable lead by Schwarzenegger, he’s gotten increasingly caustic at his appearances, seemingly more pugnacious than philosophical.
That’s not a good sign for a person whose task will be to overcome the bully pulpit of incumbency, the power of celebrity and the incredible campaign war chest behind it.
Few candidates in recent history have faced such daunting obstacles — perhaps the largest being history itself. No incumbent governor in the state has lost a second gubernatorial election in more than 60 years.
Almost none of the issues Angelides has floated so far — tying Schwarzenegger to President Bush, the governor’s stance on immigration or his failed reformist special election last year — have seemed to resonate with Democratic or swing voters. And it almost certainly hasn’t helped that the governor and high-ranking Democratic leaders just concluded one of the most successful, bipartisan legislative sessions in more than a decade.
And as the election nears it’s no surprise that Schwarzenegger is looking ever more like a centrist Democrat, backing Villaraigosa’s plan to take over Los Angeles’ failing school system and recently signing on to a historic agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
But some political consultants insist that Angelides can still close the gap. And they point to a Senate race in which a heavily favored incumbent found herself in a dead heat by Election Day.
That was the 1994 campaign between Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and then little-known Santa Barbara Congressman Michael Huffington, who used his oil millions and rising anti-Democratic sentiment to make it one of the more memorable nail-biters in state history.
Kam Kuwata, a Democratic strategist who ran Feinstein’s campaign, said that if Angelides can raise enough money so he’s not overwhelmingly outspent by Schwarzenegger and can effectively communicate with core party voters, he has a good shot. But he says Angelides needs a more powerful and polarizing message — the governor's stance on the war in Iraq.
“This is a real issue in all the major campaigns this year and California is definitely an anti-war state,” Kuwata told me. “If Angelides is willing to draw the contrast between himself and Schwarzenegger on this issue I think it will definitely resonate with voters.
“We have a situation in national politics where quite frankly a lot of Republican candidates are vulnerable because of the war. And I haven’t found a lot of Democratic voters who are wishy-washy on it. But there’s no doubt that the issue has to be driven by Phil Angelides.”
Clearly so far, Angelides has had difficulty gaining traction — a poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California saw Schwarzenegger’s lead holding steady at 13 points among likely voters. Whether Angelides will be buoyed by Villaraigosa’s endorsement this week or that of any other mayors is going to be a hard sell, since Angelides is only ahead in the Bay Area Democratic stronghold by 10 points.
But if he’s to have any hope, he’s going to have to change tactics pretty quickly. In recent appearances in Southern and Central California, Angelides was trying to compare himself to former President Clinton. And I can say with all assurance — having covered Clinton’s White House campaigns — that when it comes to attracting voters through sheer power of personality, Angelides is no Bill Clinton.
Angelides’ campaign apparently thinks that he still has time to change his image and it is banking on millions from labor unions to help turn the tide of public opinion. But Schwarzenegger’s team has been nothing less than masterful in dusting off the governor’s perceived nice-but-tough-guy image.
Where would Phil Angelides lead California? With less than three months before Election Day, we’re still waiting to find out.