On the first morning of the state Democratic convention in April, a room full of delegates brought together by the California Labor Federation got a tasty extra with their standard hotel ballroom breakfast. State Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides stood before them, and after a heroic introduction from US Representative Nancy Pelosi, he proceeded to dish out industrial-sized portions of just the sort of fare for which hungry and disappointed Democratic activists from coast to coast have been longing. Here was a fighting, unrepentant Dem. “If we do this right, if we stand up for working men and women, if we stand up for the Democratic principles of fairness that built this country,” said the tall, wonkish-looking 52-year-old candidate, his voice rising, his right hand churning the air with every syllable, “if we campaign with passion and principle, then come November of this year we are going to drive Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the Statehouse!”

After the thunderclaps of applause, Angelides–who has been campaigning as an unabashed liberal–moved on to the rhetorical dessert. “After thirty years of assault from the right,” he told the labor delegates, “we’re going to go back on the offensive and we’re going to have a government on the side of hardworking men and women, and California is going to be a model.”

When Angelides addressed the entire convention floor later in the day, greeted by a fluttering sea of blue-and-gold Angelides for Governor placards, he struck the same passionate, populist note. And after his opponent, State Controller Steve Westly, made his own pitch promising to unseat “the wrong man with the wrong plan” currently occupying the governor’s chair, the delegates handed the official party endorsement to Angelides. And by an impressive 68-27 percent margin. That blowout vote was a certain indicator that Angelides’s progressive posture, his repeated denunciations of “wobbly-kneed Democrats” and his thinly veiled references to his opponent as being “Arnold-lite” had lit a fire among the party delegates.

But now, on the eve of California’s June 6 primary, neither candidate’s campaign has succeeded in mobilizing or inspiring much of the Democratic grassroots. And though Governor Schwarzenegger was handed a crushing defeat last fall when his slate of reform propositions was voted down [see Cooper, “Is the Terminator in Free-Fall?” October 31, 2005], and though the favorability ratings of the President he campaigned for have dipped near the freezing point, most political observers in this biggest and bluest of blue states still figure that Arnold’s the favorite for re-election in the fall.

Indeed, the current predicament of California Democrats raises serious questions on a national scale as the midterm elections draw nearer and as the presidential run for 2008 comes into focus. The California governor’s race tests the competing strategies of Democrats running to the left and to the center; it spotlights the uncomfortable truth that the plummeting popularity of one party doesn’t automatically translate into support for the other; and it highlights what is often the strange hollowness of modern American political campaigning.

Perhaps the most dramatic measure of the disconnection between the Democratic establishment and its own voters was Angelides’s status as “underdog,” a term he used repeatedly as I accompanied him a few weeks ago through a half-dozen Bay Area meetings with activists. It accurately described his status at least until these closing days of campaigning, when the race has tightened up. Being the underdog in your own party’s primary when you’ve raised $20 million, when you’re the incumbent second-term state treasurer, when you’ve lined up the endorsements of both of California’s US senators, its popular Assembly speaker, hundreds of other elected officials and most of the unions and environmental groups tells you a lot not only about the candidate himself but also about the dysfunction of modern American politics, when the official campaign often percolates in an enclosed bubble, remote if not almost totally isolated from the mass of voters.

This is not to say that the purple-shirted crowd of Service Employees International Union stewards in Oakland, or the dedicated squads of volunteer precinct walkers from San Francisco’s Central Labor Council with whom Angelides met, weren’t real Democrats. On the contrary–these are the most committed and fervent of party loyalists. “We’re proud to have been the first union to have endorsed Phil,” said Ken Burt, political director of the California Federation of Teachers. “He’s taken the bold step of saying he’s going to raise taxes on the rich to fund public education. And that’s the sort of direct message we like.”

Lining up the liberal-labor base of the party, however, may no longer be enough to guarantee victory, either within the party or against a powerful Republican incumbent like Schwarzenegger. The same day that Angelides won the official party endorsement, a Los Angeles Times poll showed him lagging behind Westly by thirteen points among Democratic voters. And it showed Westly handily beating Schwarzenegger in a matchup, while Angelides was locked in a tie with Arnold.

Angelides’s strength might also be the source of his weakness. A wealthy developer and land speculator, he has also been a seasoned Democratic activist and pol. He first ran for City Council at the age of 19, and he later became state party chair. Now finishing up his second term as state treasurer, he’s earned wide admiration for his smart management of state pension funds, favoring clean and green investments [see William Greider, “The New Colossus,” February 28, 2005]. He’s been a reliable friend of unions and enviros. And his early garnering of endorsements and some prodigious fundraising were designed to give an air of inevitability to his candidacy.

But it’s precisely this sort of “insiderism” that may be hobbling Angelides. In an age when fewer Americans identify with either party, how far will the party core’s support take you? Apparently not far enough to shield against the effects of television ads that bypass institutional party structures. Plowing $33 million of his own mega-fortune into his effort, 49-year-old Westly, a former eBay exec, took an early and sustained lead in the race in spite of Angelides’s institutional support. Like Angelides, a relatively obscure pol whose name was unknown to millions of Californians, Westly roared out of the box with what everyone agrees was a highly effective TV ad campaign. Always impeccably dressed, nary a crease in his sober suits, the boyish-looking Westly introduced himself to the voters as a pragmatic, can-do, almost nonideological problem solver. His central message, that he is “a new kind of Democrat…the only candidate who can beat Arnold Schwarzenegger,” bore the direct imputation that Angelides is too liberal to be elected in November. With Angelides chiding Westly as someone who “stood aside” instead of “standing up” to Schwarzenegger, some analysts have suggested that the California primary is a proxy fight between the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party, a warm-up for an inevitable internecine battle coming in 2008 on the national stage.

Other analysts argue that the deeper divide between Angelides and Westly is more generational than ideological, one of style and tone. Though both candidates are close in age, Westly–coming out of the Silicon Valley world of eBay–has deftly exploited his more with-it, hip, high-tech appeal, while Angelides relies on the traditional imagery of the New Deal coalition. At the state convention, one needed only to traipse through the respective candidates’ parties to measure the style gap. Angelides highlighted his immigrant-family-makes-good life story by calling his bash a celebration of his Greek heritage. The crowd in the rather drab ballroom was entertained with some ethnic-dance exhibitions. Westly’s ballroom, by contrast, was gussied up with an ironically overstated 1960s Flower Power motif. Fueled by a rumbling live band, Westly took to the dance floor and rocked and rolled with the African-American district attorney of San Francisco, Kamala Harris. As the dance concluded, Harris brushed aside the notion that Westly was any less of a progressive than Angelides. “I respect Angelides but Steve Westly has all of those same core values, from education to affirmative action,” Harris told me. “Steve not only has those right values, but he also thinks how he’s going to actually win and implement them in a smart way.”

Westly vigorously argues that his less partisan tone is one of his strongest attributes because it will appeal to voters rankled by the narrow confines of party politics. “There are some issues on which the governor has been right, like his Million Solar Homes program, and deserves support,” Westly said in a conversation with me. “I’m willing to support people when they’re right and oppose them when they’re wrong. I think people in this state are tired of excessive partisanship.” Garry South, former Governor Gray Davis’s top consultant and now an adviser to Westly, said, “Steve represents the perfect profile of the sort of Democrat who always wins in California–a social progressive and a fiscal moderate.”

Westly may indeed be assuming a less liberal, more centrist stance, but his own record is liberal enough to have won support from the state’s largest gay lobby. And the Sierra Club and the United Farm Workers have endorsed both him and Angelides. The contest seems more a case of which Democrat can grab the most attention from a skeptical, often disengaged electorate, which is being addressed mainly as a TV audience.

“Liberal versus moderate–I don’t think that’s what’s happening,” says veteran Democratic consultant Kam Kuwata. While not officially supporting either candidate, Kuwata is working for Senator Dianne Feinstein, an Angelides campaign co-chair. “Walk out on the mall outside this convention,” Kuwata said as the state Democratic confab was breaking up, “and ask someone out there, and they don’t even know who’s running, let alone who’s the liberal and who isn’t. This is going to be a low-turnout election, and the challenge to the campaigns will be to surgically find their voters.”

A drive down any California freeway or through any urban neighborhood visibly confirms much of Kuwata’s dim view: miles and miles without a single bumper sticker or lawn sign. If you watch cable instead of the big networks and don’t catch one of the TV spots, you may never know there’s an election coming up. When the candidates debated in Los Angeles recently, not a single TV station carried a live broadcast. The entire election process sometimes seems to be taking place in a reduced margin running parallel to everyday life. The emptiness of the California exercise is hardly an exception in national politics, but the vast size of the state brings into bold relief the entropy of modern campaigning. During what was probably the final Angelides-Westly TV debate of the campaign, less than 2 percent of the local viewing audience tuned in to watch, even though the event was held in solidly Democratic San Francisco, a place where both candidates have their highest name recognition.

While both Angelides and Westly have decent and defensible records as reliable Democrats, that these two men are the candidates of the biggest state Democratic Party in the country lays bare another jarring reality: Angelides may indeed be a stalwart liberal, but he’s also one who has a long record of cozy relationships with other developers and moneyed special interests. Angelides, in fact, made his political bones two decades ago as chief of staff to the legislature’s most business-friendly Democrat, Mike Roos. And he’s earned a reputation as a sometimes ruthless bare-knuckles campaigner–in an earlier campaign he juxtaposed the image of a former and very liberal, but antiabortion, opponent with that of the murder of an abortion doctor. Westly, for his part, can afford to move more than $20 million from his wallet into his campaign coffers and to become a contender, maybe even governor, by the sheer force of TV ads. He runs as an outsider but spent two decades sitting on the Democratic National Committee. The Los Angeles Times has reported that both candidates have used their influence to steer investments by the state pension fund into companies of their respective political contributors.

Couldn’t the California Democratic Party, which dominates the state legislature and holds every statewide elected office except governor, have produced at least one or two authentically populist leaders over the past generation? Couldn’t it offer a couple of candidates who would challenge Schwarzenegger and inspire their fellow Californians after having risen to prominence as a leader of labor or civil or consumer rights–as someone other than a professional politician?

The increasingly negative tone of the twin campaigns–with Westly attacking Angelides as a rich developer who wants to raise taxes and Angelides responding that Westly is a patsy for Schwarzenegger–isn’t likely to generate more voter interest. And some Democratic voters are, of course, conflicted about the role that big money plays in even the most liberal of state political campaigns. No doubt that’s why many just ignore the campaigns; others just resign themselves. “I deal with this information by knowing it’s absolutely required by the system,” said retired attorney Clark Moscrip, who was wearing an Ask Me About Clean Money button at the Angelides rally organized by the San Francisco Central Labor Council. “A candidate has no choice but to do that sort of fundraising,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s why we need a ‘clean money’ system. In the meantime, Angelides and Westly attack each other as being beholden, but it’s really just a distraction. The truth is, they are really no different on that issue” (though both candidates claim they would support some version of clean-money reform).

Whichever Democrat emerges victorious in the primary–and right now private polls show the race as a near dead heat–he will still face a stiff challenge in November’s general election from incumbent Schwarzenegger. Arnold has been making a modest but steady comeback in the polls since his near-fatal defeat in last November’s vote on his initiatives. The governor has apologized for his bungled anti-union ballot campaign, has appointed a longtime lesbian activist Democrat as his chief of staff and has been championing a New Deal-style infrastructure rebuilding program. That multibillion-dollar bond deal was hammered out with the Democratic leaders of the legislature, who have been making myriad self-congratulating public appearances with the governor–an unsettling sight, to say the least, to the party’s gubernatorial candidates.

The bipartisan schmoozing can’t help but favor Schwarzenegger, who has also been offered some political relief by an unexpected windfall of $7.5 billion in unanticipated tax revenues. The governor has shrewdly earmarked the money to pay back debt, restore some social spending cuts and return billions he “borrowed” from schools. That last stroke not only undercuts the ire from one of his stiffest opponents–the teachers’ union, with whom he directly negotiated the payback–but it renders one of Angelides’s central platform planks dangerously obsolete. Voters might wonder what’s the point of raising taxes on the wealthy to “fully fund education,” as Angelides vows, if Schwarzenegger just reached a deal to hand schools another $4.9 billion?

This is not to say that Schwarzenegger doesn’t have his own formidable challenges. He can’t seem to get his bearings on the increasingly important immigration issue, having made a series of contradictory statements. And more fundamentally, he’s running for re-election as a Republican governor in a Democratic state when the election itself is becoming ever more “nationalized.” Bush might wind up being a bigger threat to Schwarzenegger than his eventual Democratic opponent. “Let’s be real,” says Los Angeles-based Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “All this anti-Bush stuff really hurts Arnold. If the Democrats can take back the House in November, if there’s any real Democratic landslide, Arnold will probably be buried with it.”