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Steve vs. Phil

THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY TO SELECT the official opponent to Governor Schwarzenegger was supposed to more or less end this coming weekend — well before anyone really paid much attention to the race. That’s the whole point of modern politics, isn’t it? Get things wrapped up before the voters have any say.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a veteran pol and a multimillionaire developer, had a similar plan. Early on, he’d rack up all of the Democratic-establishment endorsements, especially the unions and the state’s top elected officials, including Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and he’d raise a lot of money. With that institutional support — and financing — he would simply make his nomination an inevitability. His coronation as candidate would take place this coming weekend with an endorsement by the state party convention in Sacramento. The June 6 primary would be merely a formality.

But life has intervened in Angelides’ plans. When California Democrats convene this weekend, rather than his confirmation as candidate it could spell the beginning of the end for Angelides’ quest. Now lagging in the polls behind his even richer rival, Controller Steve Westly, and with his campaign struggling to jell a coherent message, Angelides is in danger of losing what was once thought to be the slam-dunk state party endorsement. Westly might not get the votes of 60 percent of the delegates to get the official nod, but neither might Angelides.

The party’s rubber-stamping carries little weight by itself. But if it doesn’t go to Angelides, it will be interpreted as one more sign by the media, pundits, contributors and, oh yes, voters that his candidacy is hopelessly stalled.

Myriad reasons can be cited for Angelides’ stumbling. Some say it’s an inept campaign that has yet to properly introduce its rather obscure candidate to a wider audience. Others, like Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum, contend that Angelides has a major personality problem. “His Achilles’ heel is that he’s just plain disliked,” says Hoffenblum. Ask those supporting Angelides, and they’ll tell you the poor guy’s been outspent by Westly — a former eBay exec who has sunk a cool $22 million of his own loot into his run — but that a tougher-than-nails Angelides will hang in and rebound. Coincidentally, Angelides just got a blast of cash — a neat $5 million, invested in an “independent” campaign to support him, coming from Sacramento’s richest developer and his wealthy daughter.

I make no sweeping judgments on the campaigns run by these two contenders, because, like you, I’d have to say, “What campaign?” As usual in modern California politics, their collective stumping boils down to little more than running competing series of TV spots — and Westly’s have been far superior.

Fair enough. But what does any of this mean for California Democrats, let alone the future of the biggest state in the Union? Another good question. Because in real life — as opposed to the manufactured world of television advertising — there aren’t a whole lot of political differences between the two men. Angelides is, theoretically, more liberal, while Westly tacks more moderate. But you’d need some pretty sophisticated micrometers to chart the gaps.

Pretending that there’s some greater political significance in play by choosing one of these guys over the other would be, well, pretending. “Westly doesn’t even pretend to be ideological,” says Hoffenblum. “And Garry South,” he says, referring to Westly’s top adviser and the former strategist for Gray Davis, “well, Garry hates left-wingers, who he blames for Davis’ defeat. He detests the party base, he hates the liberals.”

Most striking, perhaps, about this Democratic primary is, indeed, how remote the party structure is from that much-talked-about and sought-after base — that is, from real voters. Personalities and platforms aside, the fact that the candidate who has toted up all of the institutional endorsements is the same candidate who is lagging in the polls tells us much about the relevancy or, in this case, irrelevancy of the party rubber stamp.

Likewise, Westly’s campaign can hardly be considered the populist alternative to the stodgy machine. Not when it’s fueled by the staggering sum of $22 million right out of his own wallet.

Given that ours is the biggest blue state in the Union, a state whose Democratic Party ought to be one of the most vibrant, creative and innovative in America, it’s rather mind-boggling to ponder who isn’t a candidate to replace Arnold. If you need any further proof of the ossification of the two-party system, of the hollowing out of the body politic, then consider that the last generation of California Democratic politics has, apparently, been unable to produce a single figure coming out of the consumer, labor or civil rights movement who can come forth as an electable, popular hero. Even Ronald Reagan, before becoming governor, had made his bones as a bona fide conservative crusader. Jerry Brown, at least, was the heir to a family dynasty that could rightfully claim to have redrawn the face of California.

BUT THAT WAS THEN, and this is now. In a party dominated by a web of special-interest contributors, lawyers and media consultants, there should be little surprise that the choice comes down to two very wealthy down-ballot pols — one financed by his own millions, the other by the millions of his close friends. This is no reflection on either man — both of whom have honorable records as Democratic public officials. It’s just the way the system works.

The idea is to make it work as best it can for the rest of us. And a stalemate this weekend over the formal party endorsement is perhaps the best immediate outcome. The less of a cakewalk it is for either guy, the more that Angelides and Westly are forced into debate, and the more that this election is decided by voters rather than by party hacks, so much the better.


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