OAKLAND — Settled in the back of a black sedan, state Treasurer Phil Angelides jumped at the chance to take a call from Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters union.
Paulson told Angelides that the firefighters, a nemesis of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would back him for governor. Angelides said he was so thrilled -- "honored beyond belief" -- that he had goose bumps. "I'd love to be able to announce this publicly with you," he said. "Can we do something tomorrow morning?" He grinned and thanked Paulson. "Bye-bye, buddy."
With that, Angelides closed the flip-phone and raced across the fog-shrouded hills near Oakland to his next campaign stop.
Just over four months before the Democratic primary for governor, Angelides has commandeered the party establishment. He has lined up support from more than three dozen unions, 200-plus elected officials and hundreds of other party insiders. In most years, that would seal his victory.
But with state Controller Steve Westly ready to spend more than $20 million of his personal fortune battling Angelides for the nomination to challenge Schwarzenegger, the value of that broad support base is less sure than it once was. Westly's money -- and the sheer volume of advertising it will buy -- threatens to offset Angelides' institutional edge, said Eric Smith, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor.
"That money is a wild card in here," he said.
Further heightening the uncertainty for Angelides is the nature of Westly's approach: Early jabs suggest a tough brawl in the making. The Democratic rivals barely differ on issues, so the race is likely to hinge on personality and biography. That poses a crucial question for Angelides: How well can he withstand that sort of race?
So far, his main selling point has been the high-risk gamble he took two years ago in standing up to Schwarzenegger at the peak of the Republican governor's popularity, when no other major Democrat -- including Westly -- was willing to defy him.
"I am proud that I earned the label of the anti-Arnold," Angelides told a roomful of rank-and-file Democrats one recent morning in Van Nuys. "It is a badge I wear with honor."
While he markets himself as a man who sticks to core beliefs regardless of political cost, the Westly campaign counters with an alternate version of Angelides: an arrogant and entrenched Sacramento politician with a shady past as a developer.
"He can, and often does, come off as an insufferable know-it-all," said Garry South, a senior Westly strategist who argues that Angelides will not wear well with voters after they get to know him.
"You can try to lemon-freshen someone's basic personality in a campaign, and you might be able to file off a few of the rough edges, but ultimately the truth will out," South said. "Voters get a gut sense of who you are and whether they like you or not."
In a top-of-the-ticket race, likability can be important, as Schwarzenegger's recall election showed. Those who know Angelides well say he's smart, works hard and has a sense of humor, despite his reputation as a wonk.
But he also tends to focus on minute tasks better left to those who work for him, they say. Never seen as lacking self-confidence, he often wedges his Harvard education into conversation, a habit known to Ivy Leaguers as dropping the "H-bomb."
"Do you know Cornel West?" Angelides asked on the ride to an Oakland school that he once visited with the renowned Princeton University scholar. "He and I both grew up in Sacramento. We didn't know each other as kids there, but we were the only two kids from Sacramento who went to Harvard, class of '74."
At public events, Angelides makes a point of showing his lighter side. In Van Nuys, he joked about the recent motorcycle wreck that left Schwarzenegger with a stitched lip. The crowd burst into guffaws when Angelides said he had ridden to Van Nuys on his "hog" with his daughter, Megan, in the sidecar.
"No accidents," he said. "And I want to be clear: I'm fully trained and licensed as a driver."
The thin and bookish treasurer -- many say he looks like a nerd, even if he has shed the image a bit with frameless glasses and a swept-back hairstyle -- plays up contrasts with Schwarzenegger.
"If you have any doubts about how different we are, I suggest you just look at my body," Angelides, 52, an avid tennis player, tells crowds in his stump speech. "Mine is natural. It is God-given. There are no steroids."
Of more consequence, he takes on Schwarzenegger for student fee increases at public colleges and universities, and for billions of dollars in new state debt that postpones California's reckoning with its chronic budget shortfalls.