Walking the grounds of a San Jose Greek festival with Phil Angelides on Saturday, it was easy to feel the love. Strangers came up to have their photos taken with the Greek-American running for governor. Scores of people eagerly grabbed up campaign buttons and bumper stickers. At one point, Angelides, in high spirits, walked over, nudged me and smiled: "I think I've got this group."
No question about it. But even in the midst of this Greek love fest I witnessed a remarkable moment that spoke to the incredible power of an outrageous allegation. A young Greek woman who had just gone up to Angelides to shake his hand returned to her boyfriend — from his looks, probably nonGreek — to relate her excitement. The boyfriend was unimpressed. "He still hasn't answered the Tahoe issue," he grumbled.
It's clear that Steve Westly's ad that implies Angelides was sued for dumping sludge into Lake Tahoe has stopped a lot of Democrats in their tracks. The act of dumping sludge into one of the state's most magnificent natural wonders is so shocking, so unsettling that people can't get that ad out of their minds.
It doesn't matter that the ad is as close to a lie as one can get. It says, "In the late 1980's real estate developer Phil Angelides' real estate company invested in a condo project in Lake Tahoe. The developers soon ran afoul of the law." If you listen very carefully, it doesn't say that Angelides or his real estate company ran afoul of the law. That's because Angelides was an investor who purchased partial ownership of one unit of the 22-condo project. He had no more of a relationship with the development company that "ran afoul of the law" than any homeowner has with the developer of his house. The ad is so outrageous that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, not usually someone given to hyperbole, called it "dastardly."
Clearly, the ad has had enormous impact. A Democratic legislative candidate who was walking precincts last weekend told me that several people brought it up on their own -- and the legislative candidate, obviously, wasn't at their door to talk about the governor's race.
Here's another indication that it's working: Last Friday afternoon aboard his campaign bus I asked Westly what his advertising plans were the final four days of the campaign. From here on out, Westly said, he was going back to positive ads. But while working out at the health club this morning, watching "The Today Show" from the treadmill, there it was: The Lake Tahoe ad was still running.
It sure looks as if both camps are aware that this ad -- as outrageous as it is -- will have a major impact on the outcome tomorrow.