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Will state Democrats self-destruct?

The best political news Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had all year may be that two tough-minded, well-funded Democrats are squaring off to fight over the party's nomination for governor in 2006. If their campaign turns nasty, and Schwarzenegger in fact decides to run for re-election, the incumbent with the falling poll numbers could catch a break by getting to run against an opponent who has already been pummeled in his own party primary.

Campaign finance reports show that Treasurer Phil Angelides already has about $19 million in his campaign account. Controller Steve Westly, with his vast personal wealth, has already committed $15 million of his own money to his campaign. There will be no lack of resources to stage a humdinger of a primary.

Angelides seems to be the early favorite, having locked up several of the most influential party endorsements including that of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, and having positioned himself as an early and persistent foil of Schwarzenegger. In addition, because the open primary initiative failed last fall, the 2006 Democratic primary will be a closed affair. Conventional wisdom holds that Democratic Party primary voters tend to be decidedly more liberal than the electorate as a whole -- another factor that favors Angelides.

Given all that, a logical strategy for Westly might be to come out of the box attacking Angelides in an attempt to even the playing field.

Westly has hired Garry South, the mastermind behind former Gov. Gray Davis' relentlessly negative campaign against Republican Bill Simon in 2002, as his senior campaign adviser.

I asked South yesterday if he felt Westly needed to go negative early against Angelides. His response: Democratic primary voters aren't as liberal as conventional wisdom holds. He noted that San Diego has the second-highest number or registered Democrats among California counties and Orange County has the third highest total. Westly can win, he suggested, merely by appealing to moderates.

Still...

South recalled that in 1994 Angelides ran a tough some say merciless and unfair primary campaign against former Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, savagely attacking Roberti's stance against abortion rights. If the treasurer tries to use that tactic against Westly, South said, the Westly campaign will be ready.

"He ought to take a long, hard look," said South, who was named the national political consultant of the year in 1998 for directing Davis' landslide victory. "People have accused me of being a lot of things, but nobody's ever accused me of being afraid to fight back."

Translation? Yes, the Democratic primary could be the best thing to happen to Schwarzenegger's political fortunes since the recall.

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95 percent accurate
Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at therdt@vcstar.com
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