Calif. Democrats looking to regroup

State party to gather for 1st time since election of GOP's Schwarzenegger

January 16, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The state Democratic Party convention was conceived months ago as a victory celebration for a party that was dominating California's electoral politics as it had not since the late 19th century.

But when the convention opens here today there will be considerably more gloom than glory, as Democrats from across the state meet for the first time since Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor two months ago.

Being a Democrat in Schwarzenegger's California is taking some getting used to, and there is growing consternation about how the party can distinguish itself in the celebrity glare of the new governor. A poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed Schwarzenegger with a 59 percent approval rating, while the Democratic-controlled Legislature received just 36 percent.

Even as the Democratic convention opens, Schwarzenegger is likely to steal the political limelight by endorsing Bill Jones, a former California secretary of state, who is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

"After every defeat there is always a struggle within the losing party," said former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, who was removed from office in an October recall election. "When you lose an election, it is time for introspection and to redefine the goals of the party. That process clearly will begin at this convention."

A Republican official in the Schwarzenegger administration suggested that the state's Democrats were in a particular quandary because the past strategy of vilifying Republican governors as right-wing extremists, as happened with Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s, would not work this time.

"He is the perfect California moderate," the official said of Schwarzenegger. "He has a bipartisan administration, his wife comes from a Democratic ... family, and he has developed relationships with Democratic leaders already."

John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., who previously worked for the Republican National Committee, said Schwarzenegger had delivered "a very strong punch to the face" of the state Democratic Party, which "is still trying to find its legs."

"This is the new model of the Terminator, and they are not quite sure how to fight it," Pitney said.

Democratic spirits have been further dampened by a Field poll released this week showing President Bush's popularity growing in California. Bush's 52 percent job approval rating was his best showing in the Field survey since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

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