Democratic Gubernatorial Hopefuls Struggle in California

Two wealthy former businessmen are waging an increasingly negative battle on California airwaves for Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Both want the chance to take on Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall. Even after spending millions of dollars on campaign commercials, neither candidate is exactly a household name.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next Tuesday California voters will decide which Democrat gets to take on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an election in November. Campaigning for that job is State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who made millions as a real estate developer. Another Democratic candidate is State Controller Steve Westly, who made millions as an eBay executive.

Between them they have spent millions in campaign that has turned increasingly ugly, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Steve Westly has been touring California by bus. The reporters following him share the ride with his supporters, who've been invited to, quote, "Hop on the Westly Wagon." There are a lot of empty seats.

(Soundbite of Mexican music)

JAFFE: In Bakersfield, about 50 people are waiting for Westly behind a little mall called the Mercado Latino. The candidate is sunny, effete, and barely mentions his opponent, concentrating instead on telling his own story.

Mr. STEVE WESTLY (Gubernatorial Candidate, California): My friends, when I started at eBay there were 22 people, and I said, You do not know this now, but we're about to change the world. And I say you do not know this now, California, but we are about to change the world again. Are you ready to change the world?

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: The real battleground of California political campaigns, however, is not in Bakersfield. It's on TV, where Westly's cheerful side is nowhere to be found. Nearly all of his commercials lately have been scathing attacks on his opponent's business record.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Announcer: ...said real estate developer Phil Angelides made a fortune paving over thousands of acres of wetlands, building so aggressively, the Sacramento Bee reported he violated the Clean Water Act.

JAFFE: The Westly campaign has been on the air early and often, bolstered by more than $30 million of the candidate's personal fortune. For his part, Phil Angelides has been getting financial help from one of his old real estate friends; that's left him with enough money to hit back.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Joe Kerry(ph), he's a corrupt Chicago businessman who gave Steve Westly thousands in campaign contributions. Westly then steered public pension funds to Joe Kerry's investment company.

JAFFE: Each campaign has condemned the other's attacks as gross distortions of the truth. But like Westly, Phil Angelides is generally upbeat during personal appearances. One recent morning, he touted his environmental record on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, but also made sure the few dozen supporters there, knew he was the one who'd opposed Arnold Schwarzenegger's agenda back when State Controller Steve Westly was helping the Governor.

Mr. PHIL ANGELIDES (Gubernatorial Candidate, California): I did stand up to Arnold Schwarzenegger from day one, when he tried to freeze all environmental regulations. I'm not the Democratic candidate who called Arnold Schwarzenegger pro-environment and said I wouldn't run against him if he sought re-election.

JAFFE: Despite all the mudslinging, Angelides and Westly agree on most of the issues. They support abortion rights, gay marriage, and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. The only significant difference between them is that Angelides would increase education spending by raising taxes on the wealthy. Oh, and there's one other thing they share.

Mr. BILL CARRICK (Democratic Campaign Consultant): The voters seem to be disinterested in the whole thing. They're just - they're a little bit worn out.

JAFFE: That's Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign consultant not affiliated with either candidate. He says voters here are tired of elections because there've been so many extra ones. Californians trudged to the polls for the recall in 2003, and the special election that Arnold Schwarzenegger called just last November.

Mr. CARRICK: And now they get to a primary and they just seem to be limp. You know, I feel bad for both of these guys, because they're - it's hard for them to get the public's attention.

JAFFE: The polls bear that out, showing Angelides and Westly in a virtual three-way tie with undecided. But one of these Democrats is going to win next week. Then he gets to run against Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's had the world's attention for decades.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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