EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, in the run-up to the special-interests special election in which he would be crushed, Arnold Schwarzenegger was political dead meat. After the Governator had gone a couple of fathoms too deep into the tank for the Chamber of Commerce, and as his gasping corpse was plummeting toward rock bottom, only a miracle could resuscitate him.

Enter Phil Angelides.

Just a handful of weeks before the November vote, some polls now show Angelides an astounding 20 points behind. More gentle soundings place him at half that distance behind Arnold. While a smiling Arnold is flying around the state, getting his picture taken hugging Big Dems like Fabian Núñez and Antonio Villaraigosa, and happily puffing away on his cigars, the hapless Angelides has been left to grimly suck on the gas pipe. Can anyone get this man to withdraw from the race? Too bad we can’t recall the ballot. Or the candidate.

When Republicans are more unpopular than at any time in recent history, how in the bluest of states did Angelides manage to get so far behind? Behind enough, in fact, that it would take yet another miracle for him to overcome Schwarzenegger. The answer, in short, is that Angelides is still doing what he was doing when he officially began his campaign over a year ago (and unofficially the day after Arnold took office). He wants liberal Democrats to believe that he’s a reliable liberal Democrat. Period. Full stop.

During the spring primary, Angelides spent all of his time and money trying to convince voters that challenger Steve Westly was a beard for Arnold Schwarzenegger and that only he was the reliable Democrat. Now Angelides has squandered the general election by relentlessly arguing that Arnold is a stand-in for Bush and that only he, Phil, is the reliable Democrat.

Poor Angelides. He skipped over a few steps — like ever taking the time to introduce himself to millions of voters who had never heard of him before, then persuading them of what he was actually for, not just what he was against. So miserably has Angelides failed that barely 60 percent of Democrats say that they will vote for him. That makes him about as popular a Dem as Holy Joe Lieberman, though ostensibly at a different end of the party.

Angelides completely misread the electorate he wants to represent. Californians turned against Schwarzenegger last year not because the governor wasn’t liberal enough, but because he had veered so far to the right. They liked the kinder, gentler and decidedly bipartisan Arnold they saw during his first year in office. Arnold got the message after his defeat last year and regained the political center. Angelides, meanwhile, went off the ledge.

He didn’t seem to notice the reworking of California’s political topography. As we learned in a recent study by the Public Policy Institute, the fastest-growing sector of the state electorate is neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither liberals nor conservatives, but independents. In 1990, 12 million Californians were registered to one or other of the major parties. Though the voter rolls have grown by nearly 20 percent since, there are still only 12 million who have a party affiliation.

Yet Angelides is still spending millions on ads trying to convince us that Dubya has possessed Arnold’s soul. It’s a tough case to make as the governor backslaps Antonio, campaigns for Democratic-written bond initiatives, raises the minimum wage, signs the most advanced global-warming legislation in America over Republican opposition, balks at White House immigration policy and makes prescription drugs more affordable for the needy.

But we shouldn’t be fooled, warns the Angelides campaign. A leopard can’t change its spots and neither can Arnold; he’s just doing some election-time pandering. Angelides doesn’t know how right he is. Arnold has always shown himself to be a political accommodator, and his radical veer last year was exactly that — a jagged and jarring departure from the centrist that Californians elected in 2003. His current course of working closely with the Democratic Legislature is the return to normalcy.

Angelides, for his part, is also showing us his real character. He’s cut his entire political career by ruthlessly attacking his opponents, never hesitating to dive right into the gutter if necessary, always emphasizing the real or imagined flaws of the other guy over his own proposals. Arnold may have pingponged from centrist to conservative, and back to the center again. But Angelides’ current incarnation as a crusading liberal has damn little to do with his real record as millionaire developer, and friend and enabler to wealthy special interests.

Pity — for a moment — the sorry predicament of all those down-ballot Dems also trying to get across the November finish line. In what should be a banner year for California Democrats, they now risk getting dragged down by the uninspiring, sputtering pol at the top of their ticket. Is it really too late for Angelides to just plain throw in the towel? He’d save us a lot of pain.

LA Weekly