How to Beat Schwarzenegger

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has built his re-election campaign on a platform of "protecting the California dream." But this week his challenger, Democratic State Treasurer Phil Angelides, laid out his own dream theme, with a populist bent.

Trailing Schwarzenegger in the latest statewide Field poll by 8 points, Angelides signaled in a speech Wednesday that his strategy for catching up will include attacking the incumbent's record, tying Schwarzenegger to George W. Bush and positioning himself as a champion of the beleaguered middle class, in the Bill Clinton mold. "The promise of California was a birthright of the many, not a privilege of the few," Angelides said in his speech at the gymnasium of the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood, flanked by union members and various Democratic officials. "That dream is in jeopardy because hardworking, middle-class families are working longer for less [because of] stagnant salaries, soaring gas prices, higher tuition for their kids and higher healthcare costs. We need a governor who will restore the promise of middle-class opportunity... and put hardworking families first."

Angelides appears to be heeding advice from party strategists about how to counter the gains Schwarzenegger has reaped from his recent shift to the political center. Last fall, voters had tagged the Governor as too extremist and rejected several of his special-election ballot proposals. His job approval ratings plummeted to 36%, before rebounding this summer to 49%. The consultants have said Angelides should outline for voters his rationale for rejecting the incumbent while articulating a vision that inspires his base and resonates with the state's big block of moderate voters.

"We're going to make a strong case that this election is a choice between a special-interest, status-quo governor and someone who will stand up for hardworking middle-class people," said Bill Carrick, media strategist for Angelides. He said the Democrat would also continue to link the Republican Governor to the unpopular Republican President, even though Schwarzenegger has made a show of distancing himself from Bush. "When Bush needed Schwarzenegger during his re-election campaign, he was happily at his side. And the Governor has followed the same high-deficit budget policy as this White House," Carrick says. "We are going to connect them in terms of politics and policies."

Angelides ticked off a list of what he said were broken promises by Schwarzenegger, whom he accused of advancing an agenda he described as "little more than a special-interest shopping list." Offering his plan for "renewing the promise of California," he pledged that in his first hundred days he'll propose more spending on education, infrastructure and renewable energy, along with tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses. He said he'll also lower property taxes for some low-income seniors and roll back public college tuition hikes Schwarzenegger implemented, while fighting for a minimum-wage hike and offering plans to expand child health-care coverage. "And I'll do what President Clinton did," Angelides added. "I'll balance the budget."

With three months until election day, the tax issue is shaping up to be a significant battleground. To pay for his programs, Angelides has previously said he'll raise around $5 billion in new taxes on the wealthy or big corporations. The Governor's campaign contends that the total tax bill for the Angelides agenda will be more than three times that and called his tax-cut plan a disguise. Just as Angelides was finishing his speech, Schwarzenegger held a press event with tax-cut advocates, reiterating his pledge not to raise taxes and touting his tax-relief record. "I will not raise taxes on the people of California in my second term — period," he said."Thanks to the car-tax repeal and workers' compensation reform, we put more than $12 billion back into the economy so that people and businesses can save, invest and build."

Still, the Angelides strategy — particularly the tax cut plan — has energized his campaign for the moment, and might help to inoculate the Democrat somewhat from Republican attacks that he's a tax-and-spend liberal, says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst and senior scholar at USC, who was at the back of the room listening to his remarks. Additionally, she said, "Angelides now seems to have a message and a focus that could force the Governor to narrow his message in a way that disturbs his carefully constructed coalition [of disparate independents and mainstream GOP voters]. If that happens, this could be a real race."