Tape fiasco shows Angelides campaign is tied up in knots

This week produced a vivid tale of two campaigns — one surging forward with confidence and focus, and the other foundering over a strategic blunder and lack of a coherent theme.

Guess which one is Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneger’s and which is Phil Angelides’?

At a time when the Republican governor was campaigning around the state, posing for pictures with Democratic Party leaders who joined him for a signing of a minimum wage increase bill, Angelides was in full damage control mode, trying to deal with the disclosure that someone on his campaign staff obtained tapes of private conversations Schwarzenegger had in his office. The attempt to embarrass the governor for his intemperate comments about “hot” Latinos instead became just another botched campaign trick.

It may be the only memorable campaign moment for Angelides, who is lagging in the polls, far behind in his fundraising efforts and can’t generate nearly as much news coverage asthe celebrity governor.

Angelides’ problem may be obvious but a solution is not. In a two-person race, it’s all about the contrast and comparison of the candidates — a fact that does not appear to be working in his favor. He is running against arguably one of the best-known people on the planet, who just happens to be an incumbent using the power of his office to go around the state and sign bills with the biggest political appeal. And he’s doing it with Democrats in tow — as part of a bipartisan effort to pass a $37 billion bond to fix the state’s roads and waterways.

Angelides’ primary advertising effort has focused on trying to portray Schwarzenegger as the flip-flopping governor who battled with Democrats over a costly special election in 2005. But polls show that much of the public has forgiven the governor for his mistaken efforts to unilaterally push for reforms, and his campaign has steered him back to the center, a strategy that helped Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and other governors.

And perhaps his biggest problem, according to several analysts I spoke with, is that Angelides is assuming that a lot of people know him. And that may not be a good strategy for a two-term state treasurer who is not exactly bubbling with charisma.

“They haven’t been doing the basics well or at all,” said veteran Democratic strategist Garry South, who worked to elect Davis and ran Steve Westly’s bruising primary campaign against Angelides. “They’re running negative ads about the governor but they work best when you’re telling voters something about your opponent that they don’t know. And people know Schwarzenegger is a kind of a rogue, a guy who was a bodybuilder and a movie star who had a history of sexual cavorting and making outrageous statements. They’ve already factored that into their view of him.”

During his race against Westly, Angelides was criticized for his ethical lapses in his real estate dealings and his political campaigns — one of the reasons the tape handling was largely viewed as a fiasco. His campaign team tried to portray Schwarzenegger’s use of the tapes as “Nixonian,” but it’s still unclear whether the Angelides camp procured them from a Web site or hacked into them. The governor’s office has turned the issue over to the California Highway Patrol, but even a speedy probe is not likely to give the issue much traction.

And while Angelides has been struggling mightily to try to tie the Republican governor to President Bush, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Schwarzenegger intends to spend like Bush. His campaign strategists say they plan to launch the biggest cable television advertising blitz in California history. The plan is modeled after Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns that focused on niche channels heavily watched by Republicans. Cable spots also allow campaigns to target select areas — a key factor in California, whose size makes it difficult to reach all its disparate markets.

For South, the Democrats’ money and message — two factors largely missing in Angelides’ race — are not adding up to a winning strategy.

“The Angelides camp has done almost nothing right in this campaign,” he said. “They’re trying to remind voters of the governor in 2005 but people have gotten over that, and in the last year he’s changed course pretty dramatically and he’s right back where the voters want him to be, working with the Legislature. And the byproduct is that it causes Democrats to look at the governor and ask what is the imperative to get him out of office.”

By Election Day, a lot more people will know Angelides’ name. The only question is, will it matter?

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.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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