Democrats tear into each other as Schwarzenegger tries to rebound
SACRAMENTO (AP) – Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is wounded and vulnerable, and yet the two Democrats vying to unseat him are tearing each other apart in the very nightmare scenario party leaders had feared.
State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly are spending millions on attack ads heading into Tuesday’s primary, trading accusations of being corrupt, indulging in dirty politics and wanting to raise taxes.
“The script couldn’t have been written any better by the Schwarzenegger campaign,” said GOP consultant Kevin Spillane. “Whichever Democrat wins is going to be a dirty campaigner and a tax increaser.”
Westly, a former eBay executive who has poured nearly $35 million of his own money into his campaign, went negative first, despite a promise to run a positive campaign. He delved into Angelides’ past as a developer, accusing him of paving over wetlands, building on flood plains and contributing to urban sprawl.
Angelides, also a millionaire but on a lesser scale, attacked the controller for contributions he took from a Chicago businessman who was later indicted, and accused Westly of steering state business to the man’s company.
“Whoever emerges on top June 6 is going to be as wounded as a candidate could be,” said Mervin Field, a veteran California pollster.
Schwarzenegger has come off statesmanlike in comparison, a reversal from last year, when the movie star’s pugnacious, borrowed-from-Hollywood language frequently got him in trouble.
The infighting is exactly what California’s Democrats feared might happen.
At the state Democratic convention in April, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom warned the candidates against forming a “circular firing squad.” Before the convention, Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres asked the candidates not to squander their opportunity “through bitter, negative campaigning.”
In recent months, Schwarzenegger, with help from Democrats in the Legislature, signed bills to put the biggest bond measure in California history before voters in the fall. It is aimed at reversing decades of neglect of the state’s roads and water systems and overcrowding in the schools.
The governor also proposed a popular budget with new money for schools that was made possible by billions in unanticipated tax revenue. The spending plan has won the support of teachers, who have been the governor’s most effective foes.
More recently, he played host to Mexican President Vicente Fox, professing his love of mariachi music. Hispanic votes could prove crucial in November.
Schwarzenegger has a deep hole to climb out of. His job approval rating, which sank last year as he battled practically all the state’s Democratic interest groups, is still well below 50 percent.
And he is running in a heavily Democratic state at a terrible time for Republicans. President Bush’s unpopularity is expected to drag down members of his party across the country in November.
Schwarzenegger has made a big show of challenging the president in public, first on the shaky start of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, then on the question of sending National Guardsmen to the border.
“What’s he going to do next, show up in front of the White House with a sign saying, ‘I’m against Bush’?” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick asked sarcastically.
For the governor to survive, analysts say, he must establish himself as a unique political figure who transcends party labels.
“He’s not going to get re-elected as a Republican,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican analyst. “He needs to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Key to this venture are independents, who make up one in five California voters. As a group they are less ideological, and they could be turned off by the negative tone of the Democratic contest.
“There’s not one thing that’s on television about what they’ll do if they’re elected in November,” said Leon Panetta, a former California congressman who was President Clinton’s chief of staff. “You combine that with what Schwarzenegger’s been able to accomplish, it clearly gives him the advantage right now.”
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