- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

LOS ANGELES.

The Terminator always managed to corner himself in the second reel of the movie, taking abuse and mockery, but once the projectionist put on the last reel, the bad guys were doomed. You could look it up.

Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t much like being called the Terminator any more. A governor is supposed to be bigger than a mere movie character, even in California (although the Gipper never seemed to mind). He was supposed to have been washed up only yesterday, but now a lot of California Democrats, who vote today to pick a candidate to oppose the governor in November, aren’t so sure. Leon Panetta, the former California congressman who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, thinks the Terminator has momentum.

The Democratic primary has turned ugly and divisive, a circus of attack ads, surly epithets, charge and countercharge, and friends and campaigners for both Steve Westly and Phil Angelides are worried that the primary campaign has supplied the Terminator with a sufficiency of weapons for November. Mr. Westly, who holds a margin as thin as a sheet of cigarette paper in the final nonpartisan (and highly regarded) Field Poll, is a one-time EBay executive, and Mr. Angelides is the state treasurer. Mr. Westly is a “moderate,” and Mr. Angelides is by any measure a San Francisco Democrat. Mr. Westly is very rich; Mr. Angelides has very rich and very generous friends.

Mr. Angelides is eager to test the belief, devoutly held in the fever swamps of the left, where be only ferocious dragons and lizards the size of elephants and all registered churchgoing Republicans, that all the Democrats have to do to win elections is return to the days of yore, when soaking the rich and drenching everyone else was the key to endless happy campaigning days and thrilling election nights.

Listening to Mr. Angelides do his impersonation of Howard Dean (minus the shrill roll-call of the states) is music to the true believers, but the message would only grate on the ears of the independents and Republicans he would need in November. Mr. Angelides wants to “make California a progressive beacon of hope for the nation,” and likens himself to, of all people, Ronald Reagan: “They said he didn’t have a chance, either, because he actually believed.”

More money for the public schools is regarded as issue No. 1, and Mr. Angelides says he’ll get it by raising the taxes of everyone with an annual income of “more than $500,000.” Mr. Westly counters with a clich of his own: “I want to bring both sides of the aisle together to find a common-sense approach.”

This is about as deep as it gets with issues, so both men have turned to attack ads, accusing each other of corruption, chicanery, skulduggery, dirty politics and other naughty things. The Terminator is unopposed, so he has not said very much, and takes comfort in improving approval ratings that hovered near the George W. Bush mark, in the 30 percent range, only months ago. Now nearly half of the California voters say they like him well enough, perhaps well enough to vote for him. “The script couldn’t have been written any better by the Schwarzenegger campaign,” says Kevin Spillane, a Republican campaign consultant. “Whichever Democrat wins is going to be a dirty campaigner and a tax increaser.” Mervin Field, the nonpartisan pollster, more or less agrees: “Whoever emerges on top on June 6 is going to be as wounded as a candidate could be.”

The Terminator has responded in the way tough Republicans always respond when the going gets tough. He joined Democrats in putting the biggest bond issue in the state’s history to a referendum in November, with the money designated for schools, roads and water systems. He has climbed down from his challenges to President Bush over the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and sending National Guardsmen to the border as a show of doing something about the tide of illegal immigrants. When he appeared with Mexican President Vicente Fox the other day in Los Angeles, he even boasted that he grooves on mariachi music.

“He’s not going to get re-elected as a Republican,” says Republican analyst Allan Hoffenblum. “He needs to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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