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Prepare yourself for upcoming gubernatorial hardball

If anyone had doubts about how serious Steve Westly is in his effort to become California’s next governor, they ended the midsummer day he hired Garry South as his senior adviser, the same title South held as campaign boss and political guru for Gray Davis - who didn’t always listen.

No one is paying much attention now, with all eyes on the November special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Westly’s choice of South to run his campaign means California is in for a year of attack politics, with very few punches pulled.

Yes, South has a sense of humor. Yes, he has lost a few, most notably the Davis recall and when he was communications director for failed Los Angeles mayoral candidate Mike Woo in 1993.

But South prides himself on having helped make California a basically Democratic state, noting that he’s the only campaign manager in his party in more than 40 years to have steered two winning campaigns for governor.

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Two things about South: He never forgets, and his campaigns don’t show much mercy. Ask Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who beat Woo in a campaign South considered dirty. When Riordan ran for governor in 2002, South took the unprecedented step of unleashing a relentless stream of ads blasting him during the other party’s primary.

He painted Riordan as a waffling doofus, making the previously unknown Bill Simon the GOP nominee and easy pickings for the already unpopular Davis.

Now South has revenge on his mind again. He wants first to eliminate state Treasurer Phil Angelides in next June’s primary, clearing the way for Westly to face off against Schwarzenegger.

The first thing he’ll do is make sure voters know Angelides has entertained the idea of raising taxes to solve state budget problems. Then he’ll attack Angelides’ business background as a longtime Sacramento-area developer.

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“There’s barely a tax this guy hasn’t wanted to raise,” says South. “Was he on a different planet in 1984, when (Democratic presidential candidate) Walter Mondale called for raising taxes and got creamed? What he’s been saying isn’t courageous; it’s crazy.”

And he’ll attack Angelides for being the Sacramento area’s king of sprawl. “Remember what we did to (Northwest Airlines chairman) Al Checchi when he led Gray before the 1998 primary?” South says. “We showed how he screwed employees in his corporate takeover. That didn’t appeal to Democratic voters and neither will Phil’s back story as a developer.”

Angelides, of course, will fight back.

“There’s a reason Phil is the leading Democrat in the polls right now, and it’s because he’s been opposing Arnold’s wrongheadedness from the start,” says Angelides campaign manager Cathy Calfo. “Westly played ball with Schwarzenegger. Phil has been clear that if it’s between higher college tuition or restoring the Ronald Reagan-Pete Wilson 1 percent tax increase on the wealthiest Californians, he’ll do the tax.”

South considers that kind of talk political suicide. So he figures it will help current state Controller and onetime eBay executive Westly get past Angelides and face Schwarzenegger.

“That guy has never had a solid campaign run against him,” South says. “We’ll remind people of all the conflicts of interest in his administration, his and his aides’. But I think people have already made up their minds about Schwarzenegger, just like they did with Davis in 2002 and 2003. I had $70 million in campaign funds in those two years to change people’s minds about Gray and couldn’t do it. Once people write you off in politics, you just can’t get it back.

“On Gray’s worst day, he didn’t have 6,000 people booing him, like Arnold did at the inauguration of (new Los Angeles Mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa.”

South isn’t even sure Schwarzenegger deep down wants to keep the job. “He and Maria don’t look like they’re having fun any more,” he said.

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For sure, if Westly is the Democrat facing Schwarzenegger, Arnold will see the toughest attacks of his life. Attacks on Angelides have already begun. Just the other day, Westly press secretary Jude Barry called him a “slimy developer.”

That stuff won’t work, insists Calfo. “Phil built an environmentally sensitive community that’s been cited as ‘environmentally sustainable’ in places like Time Magazine,” she said. “He’s got endorsements from 70 of the most prominent environmental leaders in California.”

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.