SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's drive to recapture his image as a political centrist will make it harder for the two Democrats vying for his job to cast him as a conservative Republican out of step with middle-of-the-road Californians.
In a State of the State speech Thursday that framed his campaign for reelection, Schwarzenegger minimized opportunities for the Democrats -- state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly -- to draw sharp contrasts with him.
Neither Democrat could much fault Schwarzenegger's calls for vast public construction projects, a higher minimum wage, cheaper prescription drugs or a freeze in university enrollment fees -- even if they questioned the timing or details. By and large, he was pushing ideas long championed by Democrats.
The governor's new focus on matters with potentially broad appeal marks a sharp departure from his strategy last year of playing to his conservative base with an agenda that antagonized Democrats and organized labor.
By neutralizing some key issues, his political shift also heightens the likelihood of a gubernatorial race defined as much by disputes about character as by partisan divisions, analysts say. A central question is apt to be whether Schwarzenegger is motivated more by core beliefs or a quest for personal success.
"It would be very hard for someone to determine from these various positions precisely what Schwarzenegger stands for," said Thomas Hollihan, a media and politics professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
In the two months since voters rejected ballot measures he described as crucial to California's future, Schwarzenegger's moderate moves have largely been a matter of emphasis, not substance.
His support for raising the minimum wage, for example, is long-standing, but he drew more attention to it Thursday by bringing it up in a high-profile speech. (He still disagrees with Democrats on how much and how fast.)
Nonetheless, Angelides and Westly have seized on Schwarzenegger's lurch toward the center to portray him as unprincipled and untrustworthy. To the extent voters are paying attention at this opening stage of the race, the Democrats' attacks are aimed at extending the political damage inflicted on Schwarzenegger last year by union television ads that hammered him for breaking a deal to restore billions of dollars in school spending.
In the Assembly chamber after Schwarzenegger's speech, Angelides said the governor's newly announced plans had "no credibility."
"He's a governor who has cut education, made it harder for kids to go to college, absolutely failed to invest in our infrastructure," said Angelides. In Los Angeles earlier this week, Angelides accused the governor of trying to "fake" support for working Californians as a ploy to win a second term.
Still, Schwarzenegger's appeals to moderates in recent weeks have left Angelides and Westly straining to stay on the offensive. In an interview, Westly applauded the governor for "taking some steps in the right direction" on school spending, the minimum wage and legalizing imports of medicine. But he recalled Schwarzenegger's resistance to such steps last year.
"We're looking for some evidence of core values," Westly said. "I don't know what he believes."
Day by day, Angelides and Westly -- the only major candidates so far in June's Democratic primary -- both have had to recalibrate their message as Schwarzenegger has revealed his plans for 2006.
The governor's proposal this week to increase school spending by $4 billion came just hours before a news conference Angelides had called to urge Schwarzenegger to put more money into education. As a result, Angelides was forced to argue that the governor's plan to do exactly that simply "falls short of the promises that he made."
Standing alongside Angelides was another Democrat, state Public Instruction Supt. Jack O'Connell, who pronounced the governor's move "a good beginning."
"We had to do a little semi-pirouette," O'Connell acknowledged after the event.
In a similar vein, Westly and Angelides have each called for infrastructure investments like those proposed by Schwarzenegger. In responding to his proposal, both have tried to shore up their credentials as fiscal conservatives.
Westly released what he called a "strict accountability and oversight plan" for the borrowing to ensure the money is not squandered "on pork-barrel projects for politicians."
Schwarzenegger advisors acknowledge that he has adjusted the mix of issues he is stressing as the campaign season opens. They also welcome the growing difficulty that Westly and Angelides face in criticizing the governor on ideological grounds.
"As he's able to occupy center ground, which is where a majority of California voters are, it leaves little room for the Democrats to operate within," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director.