California's Gray Davis finds friends in high places

Saturday, September 13, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- When former President Clinton arrives in California to campaign with Gov. Gray Davis on Sunday, he will be the first in a long line of Democratic heavyweights scheduled to stump for the governor between now and the Oct. 7 recall election.

Support for Davis' ouster, strong when the recall campaign began, has been fading: A Los Angeles Times poll released late Thursday found 47 percent of likely voters are inclined to vote against the recall, compared with 50 percent who support it. The shift has sent several high-profile Democrats flocking to the state to align their political fortunes with the governor.

"This is a national effort to make sure Gray Davis stays in office," said Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who helped organize the visits. "I made a lot of the phone calls myself, and there was no hesitancy whatsoever."

Former Vice President Al Gore will campaign with Davis next Friday in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Several 2004 Democratic presidential candidates are planning campaign visits with Davis in the next two weeks, including Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the nominal front-runner among the Democratic presidential candidates, campaigned with Davis last weekend.

"Clearly, there's a sense that Davis has a chance to survive," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. "And even if Davis should go down, they are hoping to have an energized Democratic base."

California Republican Party chairman Duf Sundheim dismissed the visits from national Democrats, saying they revealed Davis' weaknesses more than any new strengths.

"It shows Davis needs to go outside the state to get Democrats to stand by his side," Sundheim said. "I can't see it benefiting him. The people of California know him, and they've made up their minds that they need change."

Most of the out-of-staters aren't yet sure how to handle Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's recall campaign, in which he is urging voters to oppose Davis' removal while offering himself as a Democratic replacement in case the governor is recalled.

The national Democrats are expected to follow the lead of the California Democratic Party, which scheduled an emergency meeting Saturday to decide whether to endorse the "No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante" strategy. Lieberman, who chose Bustamante to be his California campaign co-chairman, already has endorsed the strategy.

Polls show Davis has some work to do to firm up his support among Democrats. Some polls indicate 20 to 25 percent of Democrats still support the recall. While Democrats have a registration edge over Republicans, 44 percent to 35 percent, Davis has alienated enough Democrats that he is looking to bring them back.

Last week, Davis signed a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, a popular measure among Hispanic voters who are a key part of the party base. He has also held several events to remind voters of his record on abortion rights and environmental protection.

Some analysts say bringing in so many national Democrats could backfire for Davis.

"The danger is that when you have national figures coming from outside, you actually rally people on both ends of the spectrum -- your core supporters and your core enemies," Pitney said. "It's particularly true of Bill Clinton, who is a polarizing figure for so many people."

So far, the Davis campaign doesn't see the danger. Davis, who is speaking to the state Democratic gathering, will be introduced by one of the 11 Democratic Texas senators who left their state for more than six weeks to thwart a Republican plan to redraw the lines of the state's 32 congressional districts.

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