AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl event160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! IN politics, it’s never too early to start handicapping a big race, and half the California media are well into their assessments of the chances that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be re-elected come November. I have tried to ignore the horse race, and focus on loftier issues like preschool for California’s vast population of disadvantaged small children. But like an ex-smoker surrounded by hard-core partiers, I have succumbed. Lately, a few things have made me suspect the governor is on the road to recovery, even in this heavily Democratic state, even after his free-falling approval ratings. First, as I predicted recently, the gloves came off between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Steve Westly and Phil Angelides. Westly is an appealing guy, a former Stanford professor who helped found eBay and who is rich enough to finance his own race. Already, Westly who as state controller is the official check-writer for California has spent several million dollars of his own on his campaign. Angelides is state treasurer and a rich former developer. He’s also a loud-mouthed unionista who can’t wait to raise taxes. His ambition to be governor is so raw that he looks desperate on camera. Several days ago, these two rich and powerful Dems engaged in their first debate, and it wasn’t pretty. During the increasingly nasty fur-pulling we’ll probably see before the June 6 primary, Angelides is likely to attack Westly for backing Schwarzenegger’s stellar efforts to reform workers’ compensation, or for traveling California with Arnold to pass Propositions 57 and 58, which saved us from our junk-bond fall toward insolvency. For his part, Westly will also utter nasty things about Angelides, probably pushing the idea that Angelides, an incessant campaign fundraiser with his hand outstretched, is some sort of wholly-owned subsidiary of rich Indian tribes or big unions. This gives Arnold a couple of months to look good if he chooses. A year ago at this time, he made all the wrong moves. Flush from his three victories fixing workers’ comp, halting the issuance of drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants and reversing Davis’ fat increase of the hated “car tax,” Schwarzenegger jumped into ill-advised battles with the nurses’ union, firefighters and teachers. He was the subject of endless, unflattering news coverage. But look at things now. The front page of the Los Angeles Times recently offered up a positive, non-snarky feature about Schwarzenegger’s policy of lowering the state flag to half-staff at the Capitol every time a California soldier dies. A positive story in a newspaper that worked hard to trash the governor when he ran to unseat Gray Davis is something no amount of money can buy. To me, it’s another indicator that Arnold’s new political advisers are helping him turn a corner of sorts. The governor fired his old advisers, the same ones who convinced him before his State of the State speech in January of 2005 to take on nurses and firefighters but who had no plan for what might happen once he did. The Times story depicted how the governor has been honoring the fallen soldiers from California, how his office issues a formal press release with each death, and how much the families appreciate it. Some people don’t believe in media bias. Grow up. If the editors at the L.A. Times were as peeved at the governor as they were a year ago when the paper gleefully covered his tussles with firefighters and nurses those editors would not have assigned an endearing story in which Arnold gets to play the role of mensch. And that brings us to the polls. Several days ago, another poll was released containing the fascinating information that, although Schwarzenegger is in the doghouse with some Californians, many voters hope he will succeed. In short, people like him. So let’s add up what we have so far: Angelides and Westly have already begun sniping at one another. The media are not nearly as furious with Arnold as one year ago. Voters want Schwarzenegger to succeed. Those three truths put Schwarzenegger in a nice spot. His greatest threat is probably is from President George W. Bush, who is such a divisive figure that Democrats dream of winning back a majority in Congress on Bush’s “not-coattails.” There will be perhaps 30 congressional seats in play nationwide. If the Dems could stop acting like the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight which I doubt is possible they could win back Congress, a shift that would reverberate through every contested gubernatorial race in the land. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The horse race is just getting started. I’ve dipped my toe in, merely sized up the ponies. I’ve seen a couple of decent nags. I’ve started to lay down a few very modest bets. Jill Stewart is a print, radio and television commentator on California politics. She can be reached via her Web site, www.jillstewart.net.