An unfettered slugfest

Westly and Angelides prepare for battle

Here’s irony for you: The June 6 primary to decide which Democrat will face Arnold Schwarzenegger next November could be preceded by such a vicious slugfest between state Controller Steve Westly and state Treasurer Phil Angelides that the two Dems send voters back into Arnold’s arms.

A fresh poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings up 8 percentage points among likely voters over his abysmal bottoming-out last fall—an uptick that’s in line with other polls.

Somebody finally figured out that Arnold needs to govern without a smirk and needs to govern as the centrist he actually is. Every week that Schwarzenegger pursues responsible stuff like fixing the state’s infrastructure means another potential upward tick in his approval ratings.

Mark Baldassare, director of research at PPIC, told me that the governor is being helped by “attitudes about the economy picking up in California.” Baldassare also suspects that voters feel better about Schwarzenegger because “all the millions of dollars spent dragging his name through the mud during the special election stopped—and stopped having an effect. The governor began to get his message out.”

Arnold was badly, badly hurt not just by his errors, but also by vast sums spent directly attacking him during the November special election. That negative campaign lesson is hardly lost on Westly and Angelides, only one of whom can remain standing after June 6.

I expect them both to go negative against one another, big time. It’s no coincidence that the likable and moderate eBay multimillionaire Westly has hired onto his campaign “South the Mouth,” the outrageous former adviser to Gray Davis whose bombast didn’t do Davis any favors. And it’s no coincidence that the dour and much further left Angelides has hired onto his campaign Bob Mulholland, the bizarre flamethrower who for years has been the embarrassing spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

These two gents—South and Mulholland, I mean—are practitioners of the unfettered slugfest. It’s not clear whether Mulholland is any good at anything else. By contrast, South at least demonstrates serious knowledge of the issues, though he sometimes seems to fit the seriousness in between his periods of bombast.

The ultimate goal of these two advisers is to help their guy bring down Arnold next November. But even in a mostly Democratic state like California, it’s entirely possible that both Democrats could emerge from the June 6 primary contest so bloodied that their own voters won’t claim them come November.

I expect Angelides to win the lion’s share of endorsements and money from Democratic Party institutions, just as happened with an eerily similar party hack named Cruz Bustamante in 2003. But, unlike the recall election, which uniquely did not include a primary, this time Democratic voters get to cull the field and decide which Democrat faces Arnold.

Whom will voters pick? Westly is upbeat and attractive; Angelides is pinch-faced and whiny. Westly is pragmatic and relaxed; Angelides is histrionic and obsessed with a longtime desire to be governor. The self-made Westly is writing personal checks to finance his race; Angelides must call on every special interest between here and the border.

On Angelides’ side of the ledger, the primary will be a very low-turnout election, since the only interesting ballot measure is director Rob Reiner’s bid to fund free preschool for all California children.

Low turnout means that armchair Democrats—everyday folk who may not vote every single time—tend to stay home, while hard-core party partisans tend to stream to the polls. Hard-core partisans, who are further left than the Democratic mainstream, will back Angelides over Westly.

However, Angelides is running as Cruz Bustamante-light, if such a thing is possible, by pushing a dreary version of the disastrous 2003 Bustamante campaign platform: far higher taxes on Californians to pay for pet plans.

If Democratic voters learned anything from Bustamante’s trouncing in the recall, it’s that you don’t make a big play for power in a state like California by trotting out the party’s also-rans. Voters probably will see Westly as the clearer threat to Arnold.

If so, the trick for Westly will be to win the primary without getting so bloodied that the voters decide to stick with Arnold, whose approval rating among both independents and Democrats is improving.

Baldassare, ever the understated pollster, told me, “It’s not a good situation for the Democrats to have two candidates finding fault with one another for the next six months while the governor stays out of it and works on infrastructure.”

No. And it might come down to which guy’s bombastic adviser—South or Mulholland—avoids the slugfest long enough to focus his campaign on the daunting issues that will face California long after the primary struggle is over.