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Angelides Gets Crucial Party Endorsement

Democratic delegates overwhelmingly favor the state treasurer over Steve Westly, who leads at the polls.

April 30, 2006|Michael Finnegan and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — In a boost to his struggling campaign for governor, state Treasurer Phil Angelides won the Democratic party's formal endorsement late Saturday -- and with it the promise of money and bragging rights as he seeks to reinvigorate his campaign against Controller Steve Westly.

The endorsement, announced to the roar of delegates at a party dinner, came after the two leading Democratic candidates for governor sparred over their partisan credentials while dropping hints that they would soon take their sniping to the television airwaves.

Just before 10 p.m., a beaming Angelides -- along with his wife and three daughters -- greeted cheering supporters in a convention hallway. In an impromptu press conference, he declared himself "proud and honored."

"Today, this weekend was really the start of the playoffs," Angelides said. "You know, a lot of teams make it through the regular season, but who wins is determined in the playoff season. And in the first game of that playoff season, I am very proud to have scored this victory tonight."

Asked the importance of the endorsement to his campaign, he replied: "I need everything, every day, all along the way."

As the man favored by organized labor and much of the Democratic establishment, Angelides has long expected the party's formal endorsement to give a major lift to his campaign before the June 6 primary. For Westly, whose support among Democratic leaders is comparatively thin, the goal Saturday was simply to block Angelides from reaching the 60% threshold of delegates needed to win the party's imprimatur.

In the end, it was not close, with Angelides winning 67% to Westly's 28%.

Personal wealth -- gained as an EBay executive at the height of the dot-com boom -- has enabled Westly to outspend Angelides on television ads, propelling his candidacy and lifting him in opinion polls. A Los Angeles Times poll published Saturday showed Westly leading Angelides 33%-20%, but nearly half of Democratic primary voters remained undecided.

An Angelides endorsement threatens to slow Westly's momentum at a time when a significant number of Democratic votes are still up for grabs.

In remarks earlier Saturday to the nearly 2,000 delegates, Angelides quickly went on the attack, branding his opponent "Arnold Lite" and portraying him as unworthy of the party's support in the fight against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- even while avoiding mention of Westly's name.

"When Arnold Schwarzenegger started whacking at education and healthcare like some budgetary pinata, I didn't stick a finger in the wind," Angelides shouted. "I didn't weigh the politics of taking him on."

He said there were "some in our party who tried to accommodate Arnold Schwarzenegger, to bow down to his early burst of popularity."

Lashing back at Angelides, Westly reminded the crowd that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats had, like Westly, joined forces with Schwarzenegger two years ago to pass a $15-billion bond measure to ease the state's fiscal crisis. "They know -- as I do -- that you don't stand up to the governor by standing on the backs of school kids," Westly said, saying failure of the measure could have shut down the public schools.

There was some divergence on issues, with Angelides renewing his call for higher taxes on corporations and the well-to-do. For the most part, however, the two candidates made similar pledges to preserve legal abortion, protect the environment and expand health coverage.

Despite that consensus, each candidate argued he was the more loyal Democrat. Like Angelides, Westly spent many years as a party activist.

The party's support is no guarantee of victory, even if it offers extra campaign cash and a popular label for the primary. In 1990, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp won the party's endorsement in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against Feinstein, but he lost a bitter nominating battle.

Westly alluded to that after the endorsement was announced.

"Many times the state party has endorsed a candidate who has not gone on to win the nomination," Westly said. "I hope that will be the case this time."

The endorsement fight was the only element of suspense at a convention that often seemed surprisingly subdued, especially given the larger political climate. For all the party's optimism this year -- with gas prices soaring and support for President Bush slumping -- there was a distinct lack of electricity among Democrats inside the cavernous convention hall.

Westly relied on a squadron of supporters, clad in orange T-shirts and bunched at the foot of the stage, to cheer at appropriate points in his speech. Angelides was heralded by his own shouting section, waving blue-and-gold signs and marching behind him, conga style, as TV lights captured his entrance and exit from the hall.

But beyond those designated rooters, most of the delegates offered a polite but restrained response to the two gubernatorial hopefuls.

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