At their convention in Los Angeles over the weekend, California Democrats laid out the central theme that voters can expect will be used against Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, should he decide to run for re-election next year. It goes like this: He tricked us.
Strategist Gale Kaufman, who last year told the few who were willing to listen that Democrats would hold onto all their seats in the Legislature because the Schwarzenegger Fever of the recall would not carry over into legislative elections, and was later proved right, has been again doing a lot of listening to voters talk about Schwarzenegger in focus groups. What she's hearing, and hopes to exploit, is the view that he hasn't turned out to be the person who many folks felt they were voting for.
That explains the theme of the California Teachers Association television ads that highlight Schwarzenegger's recall-campaign assertion that he would reduce funding levels for schools guaranteed by Proposition 98 "over my dead body."
What Democrats need to do is to give those Democratic and independent voters who backed Schwarzenegger in 2003 permission to change their votes. "It's OK," the Democrats' message will be. "You couldn't have known. Lots of people liked Arnold, but he hasn't been the kind of governor they thought they were getting."
Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, stayed squarely on message in his remarks to reporters covering the convention. "He is not the man he told us he was," Pulaski said. "He lied to us. He is not a moderate, as he told us he was."
It certainly has become a convenient strategy for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who damaged himself badly among Democratic activists by publicly saying after the recall that he had voted for Schwarzenegger. Now Lockyer is saying he was "conned."
There's a chance that theme could play well, because so many Democrats did support Schwarzenegger in the recall. Who are they more likely to sympathize with now? Treasurer Phil Angelides, who was the anti-Arnold from the start and essentially told Democrats from the beginning that they were fools to vote for him? Or Lockyer, who will be telling those Democrats who voted for Schwarzenegger that they made an honest mistake?
Will Schwarzenegger run? CNN is promoting an interview tomorrow with the governor that it says will deal with the re-election question, but that is most likely network hype meaning that Judy Woodruff asked the question, not that Schwarzenegger answered it. Democrats also report that the governor has scheduled an April 28 appearance on the Jay Leno show -- significant because that's the venue he choose to originally announce he would run for governor. Will he use it again to announce that he is or is not running for re-election?
If he does run, he will have to defend himself against the charge that he misrepresented himself during the recall campaign. Expect to hear often that he rescinded the increase in the vehicle license fee just minutes after taking office. That was a promise clearly kept, and the first hurdle he'll have to cross in a re-election campaign is to pesuade independents and Democrats that they were right to put their trust in him.