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The New York Times
Mar 16, 2005 - 01:00 AM

by DEAN E. MURPHY

Democratic Race for California Governor in '06 Starts Early

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Two years ago, before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor in an unprecedented recall, Democrats in California were meeting for their state convention. Four months earlier, the party had swept every statewide office for the first time since 1882, beginning at the top of the ticket with the re-election of Gov. Gray Davis.

"It was hubris," said Stephanie Allan, a union representative in San Francisco, recalling the party's mood at the time.

On Tuesday, Ms. Allan was among the dozens of people who crowded into the auditorium of an elementary school near the Nob Hill neighborhood in San Francisco where Phil Angelides, the Democratic state treasurer, became the first major candidate to announce his bid for governor in 2006.

It was a decidedly more humble event than the state convention two years ago, with Ms. Allan characterizing Democrats as "in recovery" from the shock of recent events. Mr. Davis was recalled in October 2003, the Democratic secretary of state resigned this month and a Republican - Mr. Schwarzenegger - has come to dominate California politics like no single elected official since Ronald Reagan was governor.

"The Democrats forgot the reasons that people voted for them," said Ms. Allan, a business representative for Local 39 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. "They have to be Democrats again."

As the campaign for governor kicks off 15 months ahead of the Democratic primary, the party is struggling to figure out what that might mean. There is no clear Democratic front-runner in the governor's race, with a California Poll by Mervin Field last month indicating that Rob Reiner, the director and actor, would give Mr. Schwarzenegger the toughest fight but would still lose.

Others included in the poll were Mr. Angelides, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Steve Westly, the state controller and a former eBay executive. Aside from Mr. Angelides, none has announced a candidacy, though all have raised money for possible bids. Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is also raising money for his re-election committee, has not yet said whether he would run.

Some Democrats interpret the appeal of Mr. Reiner in the poll as evidence that the election of Mr. Schwarzenegger, a wealthy celebrity with no experience in elected politics, has changed the way Californians view the state's top job. To survive in that new world, these Democrats say, the party must adjust.

"Here is my prediction," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who was Mr. Davis's top campaign adviser. "A nontraditional candidate is going to get into this field. Someone who never ran before, who is independently wealthy and who looks at the Arnold precedent and says, 'I am not going to let the Democratic nomination be a beach ball fought over by a bunch of career politicians.' "

Because of the poll, speculation in that regard has focused on Mr. Reiner, who the survey showed trailing Mr. among registered voters by 52 percent to 37 percent. Mr. Reiner's name has been floated for elected office in the past, but he has never been a candidate.

Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles political consultant who advises Mr. Reiner, said he was busy working on a film and promoting a proposed ballot initiative on preschool education. Asked about Mr. Reiner's interest in the governor's job, Mr. Griffin said, "It is not in his immediate plans, but he has not ruled out a future run."

Recently some Democratic insiders and activists have suggested that the actor Warren Beatty might be exploring a run for governor. The speculation was fueled when Mr. Beatty received an award Friday night from a group that has been among Mr. Schwarzenegger's biggest detractors, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Beatty was highly critical of the governor.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Beatty said he considered Mr. Schwarzenegger a "friendly acquaintance" and that he felt the need to speak out as one entertainer to another.

"Since Arnold comes from the entertainment community, it is valuable to have someone else come from the entertainment community and to speak out against what I would call his conservative Republican agenda," Mr. Beatty said.

Asked if he was interested in Mr. Schwarzenegger's job, Mr. Beatty said he had been encouraged to seek public office since the 1960's but enjoyed making films.

"I don't want to run for governor," he said. "I want to be an outsider."

Would he rule it out? "It is dangerous to rule yourself out of anything," he said.

The speculation about celebrity candidates has not reduced the resolve of the two so-called career politicians who have talked of the job for years: Mr. Angelides, a former real estate developer who served as chairman of the state Democratic Party during much of the 1990's, and Mr. Lockyer, the attorney general who was also a state legislator.

Because of term limits, both men will be out of jobs in 2006, making their candidacies inevitable, Mr. South said.

Bill Carrick, Mr. Lockyer's campaign consultant, said that Mr. Lockyer had already raised more than $10 million and that it was just a matter of time before he made his bid official.

Though Mr. Angelides has long been considered a likely candidate, having already raised $12 million for the race, his decision to enter at such an early date was seen as an effort to overcome the name recognition problem that has plagued so many past candidates.

Even Mr. Angelides, while striking a mostly positive tone in campaign appearances, acknowledged he was under no illusion about the formidable task ahead. In welcoming him to Spring Valley School, fifth-grade music students played the theme to the movie "Titanic" on their recorders.

"It is time Democrats stand up, no matter what the odds, and make California a home again to progressive action," Mr. Angelides said.




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