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Angelides hones campaign message

Down in the polls and with less than 100 days until the election, Phil Angelides’ campaign for governor has revamped its campaign message. For much of the general election campaign–and even during the primary–Angelides and his advisers worked to tie Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the President George W. Bush, hoping the latter’s dismal approval ratings in the state would drag down the governor’s reelection chances.

But in recent weeks the campaign has rolled out a new theme: Arnold Schwarzenegger as a flip-flopping, convictions-free actor versus Angelides, a “governor you can count on.”

Since July 25, the Angelides campaign and the state Democratic Party have sent out twelve missives blasting Schwarzenegger for “flip-flops”, accusing him of changing his positions on Proposition 187, greenhouse gases, fully funding education, not raising money from special interests and the Minutemen. On Thursday, the California Democratic Party unveiled a Web page dedicated solely to tracking Schwarzenegger’s “flip-flops and broken promises.”

In the previous seven months of the year, Team Angelides had never once used the term in either a press release or memo to reporters.

“It is just too many flip-flops for anyone to ignore,” says Angelides strategist Bob Mulholland. “As a public official, Schwarzenegger should be embarrassed. It’s like he has an identical twin with different positions.”

As a political term, flip-flop was a common theme in the 2004 presidential election, in which President Bush’s political team–several of whom are now working for Schwarzenegger–plastered the label on Democratic challenger John Kerry at every turn.

All of Angelides top strategists say the flip-flop message, which they insist underscores a larger issue of whether Schwarzenegger can be trusted, is here to stay.

“It is a metaphor for who he really is and can we trust him,” said Bill Carrick, who will oversee the production of Angelides’ and the Democratic Party’s television ads.

“It is going to be a key part of the campaign,” said Steve Maviglio, another Angelides adviser, who in a June op-ed that appeared in Capitol Weekly, suggested that the campaign “distribute flip-flops at the governor’s campaign events.”

Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt David dismissed the new Angelides tactic, saying that it is Angelides, not Schwarzenegger, that has waffled on the major issues facing the state.

“This is not an effective campaign strategy especially since Angelides has flip-flopped on a number of issues including Jessica’s Law and his plan to make public his exact tax proposal,” said David. “To be effective Angelides needs to change his message of negativity and pessimism and be honest about how much he is going to increase taxes on hard-working Californians.”

Angelides’ new theme comes as public polls show Angelides trailing Schwarzenegger by as much as thirteen points.

The hope, Angelides insiders say, is that the new message will help the campaign gain traction in a year that the governor has repositioned himself in the political center. Already this year, Schwarzenegger has embraced a hike in the minimum wage, promoted stem cell research, worked with Democrats in the Legislature and signed an agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on global climate change.

Those actions are a sharp contrast from the partisan warrior that called a special election in 2005 that was opposed by every major California Democrat and Democratic interest group. Angelides advisers say the shift–demeaned in one release as Schwarzenegger finding “election year religion”–shows a lack of conviction.

“Trust, character, convictions. Schwarzenegger has none,” says Angelides strategist Mulholland.

The Schwarzenegger and Republican Party operations have spent more than $10 million in television ads since the primary trying to cast Angelides as a tax-happy candidate that wants to “move California backward.” The result has been a lead for Schwarzenegger in virtually every public poll.

Now, the Angelides campaign has begun to fight back.

Earlier this week, top Angelides campaign advisers organized an hour-long presentation titled “Path to Victory” for reporters outlining Angelides’ strengths in a general election campaign. The campaign unveiled a new slogan “A governor you can count on” atop e-mails to supporters and the campaign Web site in mid-July. And, in coordination with the state party, Angelides’ campaign has begun highlighting what they say are a string of broken pledges, including not raising money from special interests, fully funding public schools and prioritizing healthcare for children.

Angelides pollster, Paul Maslin, says highlighting Schwarzenegger’s “broken promises” is a natural fit stemming from more than a year’s worth of interviews with voters.

“We’ve had a bunch of focus groups in the last year and they’ve said, ‘Arnold’s been just like the rest of the politicians. He’s disappointed us,'” says Maslin. “We are not making this up. This is what people have been saying to us for the last year.”

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