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Democrats prepare for potentially bloody primary battle

With just more than six months until the June gubernatorial primary,
Democrats are bracing for what is expected to be a bitter and intense battle
for the right to face Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.

Though two big-name Hollywood Democrats flirted with a run, the field has
ultimately thinned to two–state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller
Steve Westly–both of whom are little known outside of Sacramento and are
recognized by less than half of California voters.

Some party leaders are holding out hope for bloodless primary, but each
candidate has surrounded himself with battle-scarred veterans with a history
of brutal campaigns and a penchant for the jugular.

“When you run for governor, everything you have done in your entire life is
open for examination. That’s the way it works,” said Garry South, a one-time
aide to Gov. Gray Davis and now a senior strategist for Westly.

Though the race is still in its infancy, Westly has already gone on the
offensive, criticizing both Angelides and Schwarzenegger for failing to
release a decade of tax returns, saying that Angelides “has developed a
pattern over the years of resisting full disclosure.”

The fact that the ten-year tax window dips into Angelides’ past as a
Sacramento-area real estate developer and land speculator is no accident. It
is a chapter of the treasurer’s past that most observers expect the Westly
campaign to highlight.

For its part, the Angelides camp, which polls show ahead by 11 or so points
in the head-to-head match-up, has countered that Westly is a politician
“with his finger in the wind,” an opportunist who stood side by side with a
popular Schwarzenegger in early 2004, but now opposes the governor because
it is politically expedient.

“The fact is from day one, even when his poll numbers were at 70 percent, I
stood up to this governor when he was doing the wrong thing,” Angelides told
Capitol Weekly.

With all this before the campaigns have really kicked into gear, some among
the Democratic faithful are worried that a nasty primary will severely
damage the eventual nominee.

“I am hoping for it not to be a bitter primary. I am going to do all I can
to try to make it that way,” said Art Torres, chairman of the California
Democratic Party. “The overall campaign has to be as positive as possible
for both the candidates because that will bode us well in November.”

But history does not bode well for Torres. Angelides earned a reputation as
a win-at-all-costs campaigner as far back as 1994, when he ran for state
treasurer against former Senate leader David Roberti. In one memorable
television advertisement, Angelides attacked Roberti’s anti-abortion
position by highlighting the murder of an abortion doctor in Florida.

South says the ad so offended him that Angelides is the only Democrat
running for statewide office he did not vote for in 1994–or since. Angelides
defeated Roberti in that primary, but lost to Republican Matt Fong in the
Republican tide of the fall of 1994.

Late last year, the Angelides campaign hired Bob Mulholland, a brusque
former advisor to the Democratic party, known for his confrontational
tactics.

South helped secure Gray Davis’ reelection in 2002 by taking out attack ads
during the Republican gubernatorial against Richard Riordan, is helping
shape strategy for Westly, positioning him as the moderate in the race–the
“electable” alternative to a more liberal Angelides.

“Angelides has been shrill and strident and has moved way too far to the
left,” says South. “And if he is the nominee, the [Republicans] will slice
him and dice him like a Veg-O-Matic.”

“He will turn out like a Democratic Dan Lungren,” adds South, a reference to
Davis’ conservative Republican opponent who was trounced at the polls in
1998.

The hirings of South and Mulholland have many Democrats bracing for an
expensive, and nasty campaign.

“They start out with good intentions until one of them falls behind and they
say ‘screw this’. Then they go to the Armageddon strategy and all hell will
break loose,” said Bruce Cain, director of the UC Washington Center. “And
with Bob Mulholland on one side and Garry South on the other, you have some
guys that know how to get down and dirty.”

Despite the intensifying rhetoric, the two candidates tend to agree on many
of the state’s hot-button issues. They both support gun control, strict
environmental protections, abortion rights and gay marriage.

Both were Democratic activists from a young age, though Westly, now 49,
first ran for elected office in 2002, while Angelides, now 52, launched a
failed bid for Sacramento City Council at 19 years old and has since served
as Democratic party chairman, and two terms as state treasurer.

The issue that has most divided the candidates is new taxes.

While California voters have been characteristically schizophrenic on
government spending, simultaneously demanding both lower taxes and better
services, Westly has tried to walk that fine line with them, refusing to
embrace calls for higher taxes.

But Angelides has been more clear, decrying budget debt and spending cuts,
leaving higher taxes as the only viable option to fill the state’s schools,
healthcare system and transportation needs.

On Wednesday, in his first major policy speech of the campaign, Angelides
announced his plan to rollback all the Schwarzenegger-approved tuition and
fee hikes at California colleges, admit 20,000 new students to state
schools, expand Cal Grants, and double the number of college counselors.

As for who would foot the bill, he said, “We can close corporate tax
loopholes; we can ask millionaires to chip in; we can collect uncollected
taxes; we can fund this.”

The event typified Angelides’ early campaign strategy. It is the strategy of
the front-runner, focusing his fire on Schwarzenegger, with nary a mention
of his primary opponent.

Even Angelides’ campaign team is more focused on the governor, and President
Bush, than they are Steve Westly. “The governor this week has started to
read from an election year script,” said Angelides spokesman Dan Newman. “It
fits the Bush-Rove strategic plan of going into an election year and
embracing moderate rhetoric that is different from the way you govern.”


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