The scene at a Latino marketplace in South Los Angeles unfolded flawlessly for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday as he signed a minimum-wage increase into law.
In what has become a ritual of his reelection campaign, Democratic lawmakers sang the Republican governor's praises. His sole apparent worry before putting pen to paper was that news cameras capture just the right image.
"You guys have enough lights?" he asked.
At the same time, the campaign of his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, was reeling from its disclosure that it had obtained tapes of private Schwarzenegger conversations in the governor's office.
His campaign manager, Cathy Calfo, summoned the media to his Sacramento headquarters, where she said Angelides was disappointed to learn Monday that aides had downloaded more than four hours of tape from a state website and released a portion without telling their supervisors.
Betraying her dread of another damage-control news conference, she said that she was "collecting all of the facts" and that, after she gets them, "I'll probably have to do this again, unfortunately."
All in all, the day provided a stark illustration of the contrasting fortunes of Schwarzenegger and Angelides as the race for governor enters its final two months, with the governor largely on offense and his rival struggling to gain any attention at all.
Week by week, Schwarzenegger has advanced his drive to restore the nonpartisan appeal that he forged during the 2003 recall election. The Legislature has sent him hundreds of bills, and he is picking those with maximum political appeal to highlight at signing ceremonies.
In an election year, "everyone usually tries to derail each other in Sacramento," he said Tuesday amid the food stands at the Mercado La Paloma, where he and Democratic sponsors of the minimum-wage hike stood in front of the Oaxacalifornia juice bar.
Echoing remarks he made amid squirming toddlers in South Los Angeles last week, when he signed a bill putting $50 million into preschools, Schwarzenegger said he and Democratic lawmakers had decided to "do what's best for the people of California, not what is best for my party, or what's best for his party."
At the same time, Angelides is trying to remind Californians of Schwarzenegger's more partisan leanings earlier in his tenure: the combative approach he took to Democrats and their labor allies and his support for President Bush's reelection in 2004.
In a year when Democrats nationwide are energized by their hostility toward Bush, Angelides has good reason to "drive partisan division" in his campaign to unseat Schwarzenegger, even as Schwarzenegger plays up bipartisanship with his bill signings, said Parke Skelton, a Democratic strategist.
"Their best shot is to make this a race between a Democrat and a Republican, not a race between Angelides and Schwarzenegger," Skelton said. "Schwarzenegger is this bigger-than-life celebrity. It's difficult to compete with the kind of media power this guy has. Just look at the amount of coverage he's gotten over the last month or so. It dwarfs the amount of coverage Angelides is getting. It can't be about personalities."
Angelides has, indeed, had a tough time getting the amount of news coverage that Schwarzenegger easily draws, especially on television, leaving the Democrat to depend more on costly advertising.
But polls showing Angelides trailing Schwarzenegger make it harder for the Democrat to raise the money he needs to buy the advertising. So far, the governor has far outpaced Angelides in both fundraising and ad spending, much of it on spots that try to define the Democrat as wedded to higher taxes.
Adding to the treasurer's woes Tuesday was the foul publicity over his campaign's handling of the Schwarzenegger tapes.
During the Democratic gubernatorial primary against state Controller Steve Westly, Angelides, a former Sacramento developer, faced harsh criticism over his ethics in real estate and politics, and the Schwarzenegger campaign pounced on the tapes disclosure to further that line of attack.
The audio files have been the subject of contention since last week, when the Los Angeles Times published excerpts from a six-minute conversation between Schwarzenegger and aides in his state Capitol office, including his remark that a mix of black and Latino blood makes Puerto Ricans and Cubans "very hot." (The full recording is posted at latimes.com.) The governor apologized the next day.
On Tuesday, Calfo denied wrongdoing by the Angelides campaign, saying the aides got the audio files from a public website requiring no password. Schwarzenegger's team said the files came from an area of the website that required a password for entrance. The Times has refused to name its source.
Whether anyone broke the law or not, Schwarzenegger campaign manager Steve Schmidt said, it was unethical of Angelides aides to download tapes of the governor's private conversations and use them for political gain.