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The State

It's the Democrat Playing Defense on Environment

September 28, 2006|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Californians, especially the millions living along the coast, have long used the environment as a gauge to judge candidates, traditionally favoring Democrats over Republicans on the issue. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's battle to outmaneuver Democratic challenger Phil Angelides on the environment has led to an odd role reversal for the two major-party rivals.

For months, the Republican governor has seized the high ground on the issue, putting Angelides, the state treasurer, on the defensive even though environmental groups overwhelmingly support him over Schwarzenegger. On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger pressed the effort further, using scenic San Francisco and Malibu backdrops to sign into law, with maximum fanfare, a bill that puts California in the forefront of the drive to stop global warming.

"We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late," Schwarzenegger said at a Treasure Island ceremony overlooking San Francisco Bay, as flags of 141 nations flapped in a chilly breeze. Democrats, environmentalists, and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- live on a giant video screen via satellite -- lavished praise on Schwarzenegger.

For Angelides, the spectacle offered more than the obvious embarrassment of having such allies as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom pay tribute to Schwarzenegger's "vision and leadership" on climate change. It also laid bare the limitations of a central argument of his campaign: that Schwarzenegger is "just like George Bush," as one Angelides ad put it.

"There's no comparison," Tim Carmichael, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, said of the Bush and Schwarzenegger environmental records. "George Bush has done nothing constructive on the environment. Zero." With Schwarzenegger as governor, he said, environmentalists "recognize that the greatest potential for moving the ball forward is here in California right now."

Like other environmental leaders, Carmichael supports Angelides and views Schwarzenegger's environmental record as mixed. But the contrasts they draw between Schwarzenegger and Bush clash with the Angelides effort to cast the governor as a Republican in the president's mold.

"Call Arnold Schwarzenegger," an announcer says in a new Democratic Party ad produced by the Angelides campaign team. "Tell him he is too much like George W. Bush."

The Angelides strategy is aimed in part at bolstering his lackluster support among Democrats by capitalizing on Bush's unpopularity in California. But independent polls released this week found no sign of success; barely six in 10 Democrats support Angelides, and Schwarzenegger's overall lead has grown.

"It's extremely difficult for the Democrats to persuade people that we've got another Bush out here," said Eric Smith, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Beyond the environment, analysts say, Schwarzenegger has also diverged from Bush's conservative path on abortion, gay rights and gun control, holding moderate or liberal stands. At the same time, Schwarzenegger's opposition to tax increases has anchored his conservative support, even if his vast state debt proposals have raised doubts about his commitment to fiscal restraint.

In a state dominated by Democrats and the independents who often tilt their way, Republican candidates have used the environment for years to reach beyond their own party's voters. California's last Republican governor, Pete Wilson, showcased his opposition to offshore oil drilling in his successful 1990 campaign against Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

"A Republican being against offshore oil drilling was a symbolic olive branch to the voters in the middle: Democrats who might vote for a Republican," said Don Sipple, who produced Wilson's campaign ads.

This year's iteration is global warming. The new law commits the state to meet a goal of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 25% by 2020.

Schwarzenegger has pressed the issue of the environment since Angelides won the Democratic nomination in June. Mimicking a Democratic primary assault on Angelides, one of his first reelection ads accused the former developer of bulldozing wetlands and flouting pollution laws; the attack forced Angelides to defend his record.

When he first ran for governor in the recall election three years ago -- a Hollywood film star with no history in public office for voters to evaluate -- the environment played an important part in Schwarzenegger's ideological positioning. Campaigning on an oceanfront bluff near Santa Barbara, he vowed, among other things, to fight offshore drilling, cut air pollution statewide by as much as 50% by 2010, and build a network of hydrogen fueling stations for automobiles to minimize harmful exhaust.

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