By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006
SAN LUIS OBISBO, Calif. -- Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Democratic leaders just concluded the legislative session with something that has been in short supply in California politics lately: cooperation and bipartisan harmony.
In the process, Schwarzenegger found himself looking a bit like a Democrat. He backed a plan from the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles for a takeover of the city's underperforming schools and signed on to an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. After a series of political missteps by Schwarzenegger, even his critics say his new stances and alliances have helped him regain his footing.
The result has been a difficult time for state Treasurer Phil Angelides, Schwarzenegger's Democratic challenger in November.
Democratic Party bigwigs and Hollywood moguls appear to be wavering in their support. Some of the entertainment industry's most generous party donors -- including Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban -- have endorsed Schwarzenegger.
Leading California Democrats -- including Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, the co-chairman of Angelides's reelection campaign -- have crisscrossed the state with Schwarzenegger campaigning for a multibillion-dollar bond package to rebuild California's sagging roads, schools and water systems that will also be on the November ballot.
"California is once again, my friends, on the move, thanks largely to this man, the governor of our great state and a good friend of mine, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger," Nuñez gushed during an appearance with the governor in May.
In an interview, Nuñez insisted that he would work for Angelides's victory but acknowledged that he would not stop campaigning for the bond package with the governor.
"Whenever a Republican governor embraces a Democratic agenda, you have to welcome him into your tent," he said, pointing to the governor's support for legislation to increase the minimum wage to $8 an hour and lower the cost of prescription drugs. Besides, Nuñez continued, "we have an obligation to serve the people of California. We don't get elected to stop everything we're doing and try to elect a Democratic governor every four years."
Among the Democratic faithful, Angelides is having a hard time gaining traction. A poll from the Public Policy Institute of California released Wednesday put Schwarzenegger 13 percentage points ahead of his challenger among likely voters -- 45 to 32 percent -- the same as a month ago.
And Angelides's performance in key Democratic enclaves is weak: In the Bay Area, he leads by 10 points, prompting former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to suggest on his radio show that Angelides should "stay in Dinuba, Chico, San Luis Obispo, wherever there are no known systems of technology and communications."
In Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger leads 41 to 36 percent. There, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to declare his support for Angelides.
Some analysts say Nuñez's and Villaraigosa's less-than-fervent support of Angelides is politically motivated. If Schwarzenegger wins in November, the way would be open for Villaraigosa -- who remains widely popular after one year at the helm in Los Angeles -- to run for governor in 2010. Nuñez could then run for mayor of Los Angeles.
But others say it is convenient for the Democratic-dominated legislature to have a governor with Schwarzenegger's star power. If anyone can sell something to voters, they reason, Schwarzenegger can. "The legislators understand they can get more out of Arnold than Angelides because Arnold has to bargain," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.
Angelides appears to be outgunned by Schwarzenegger's ad campaign. One ad, highlighting Angelides's pledge to raise taxes, portrays Angelides doing the moon walk, taking the state back in time.
Angelides's troubles were summed up last week during a day of appearances in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Angelides held "front porch" forums. His strategy was to compare Schwarzenegger to Bush and himself to former president Bill Clinton. At a rally in Los Angeles, critics tried to tie Schwarzenegger to public unhappiness with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina as members of the California Nurses Association accused him of "never lifting a finger" to help the people of New Orleans.
But the rallies were poorly attended, media coverage was light, and some attendees were unconvinced. Voters seemed to understand the pains Schwarzenegger has taken to distance himself from Bush, who remains unpopular in California. And they were unmoved by Angelides's portraying himself as another Clinton. "My big question is whether he has the charisma to win," said Sandy Grasso-Boyd, a Democratic voter who attended a Santa Barbara session with the candidate. "I just don't know."
In an interview, Angelides, who made millions as a real estate developer, labeled as "ridiculous" talk that his party was not behind him: "This is a myth propagated by the other side. Democrats in this country have never been more aligned. You are always going to have a few weak-kneed who get picked off, people whose position and power are more important to them."
Angelides said he had no problem running a race against a media sensation such as Schwarzenegger.
"Everybody knows who he is and [his approval rating] is still stuck in the 40s," he said. "What California voters are saying is, 'Who's the other guy?' "