Davis goes on recall offensive

Friday, August 22, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- His approval ratings at rock bottom, Gov. Gray Davis has gone on the offensive this week in his fight to save his job, and in doing so appears to be pulling a page directly from the playbook of the original "Comeback Kid" of politics: Bill Clinton.

While in Chicago earlier this month to seek support from one of his most loyal political bases, organized labor, Davis met privately for more than an hour with the former president, a longtime mentor.

So it didn't go unnoticed by political analysts that soon after, Davis seemed to be adopting a more Clintonesque style in his anti-recall campaign.

He made public appearances all over the state to sign bills and announce accomplishments and held a televised address Tuesday to defend his record and denounce the recall as the work of right-wing conspirators. On Wednesday, he launched the first of a series of meetings with voters around the state that he dubbed "Conversations with Californians."

'I feel your pain'

The latest vintage Clinton moment came Thursday when he appeared with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in Los Angeles to discuss gun control. As he discussed how millions of jobs have been lost nationwide in the slumping economy, hitting California hard, he invoked a familiar Clinton catch phrase: "I feel their pain, if you will."

Davis planned a second appearance Thursday at a town hall meeting in the San Francisco area.

The offensive comes as a new poll shows 58 percent of likely voters would recall the Democratic governor if the vote were held today. The latest poll also shows Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger generating the most interest on the ballot's second question -- who should be governor if Davis is removed.

"He's trying to play it cool and trying to show he's just like you," said David Isagholian, a 36-year-old Los Angeles physician who attended Davis' first town hall meeting, at a studio in Hollywood. "It worked for Bill Clinton. It may not work for him."

Some prominent Democrats are increasingly worried that Davis' last-ditch strategy may be too little, too late.

The governor initially sought to keep other prominent Democrats off the recall ballot, a strategy that collapsed when Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante filed his candidacy papers.

Key Democrats and their supporters, such as labor groups, are now deciding whether to adopt a strategy that urges a vote against the recall but for Bustamante. They don't want the leadership of the nation's most populous state falling into Republican hands.

The state's Democratic congressional delegation on Thursday was to discuss whether to endorse a "No on recall, yes on Bustamante" strategy.

National Democratic leaders also are watching reaction to the governor's town hall meetings and warned Davis that he has until Labor Day to improve his standing in the polls. If he doesn't, party support could go elsewhere.

Acknowledging his fragile standing, Davis said Wednesday that Bustamante's campaign could help him by bringing more anti-recall voters to the polls. He also said the two, who are not close, might campaign together.

"It's entirely possible that we can find ways going forward to coordinate one another's activities," he said.


Some are skeptical that Davis can duplicate Clinton's "Comeback Kid" success.

Despite early setbacks in the 1992 presidential race, Clinton used his charm to help defeat a sitting president. After that, he relied on his goodwill with voters to see him through the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

Davis, on the other hand, is seen even by supporters as distant and boring.

"In terms of political philosophy, Davis is similar to Clinton, but he's a thin shadow of Clinton on a personal level," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

"He's Clinton without the charm, Nixon without the dog," he added, a reference to the 1952 speech that saved President Nixon's career when he denied wrongfully accepting money from supporters but defiantly admitted taking one gift for his children, a dog named Checkers.

Not that Davis hasn't been trying to thaw his icy image. At one point Wednesday, he laughed with reporters as he confirmed the claim of actress Cybill Shepherd that the two had made out on a beach in Hawaii 36 years ago.

"This was about 20 years before I met this lovely lady," Davis said, laughing and turning to his wife.

Invoking the name

At Wednesday's town hall, the governor even invoked Clinton's name. He sought to portray his recall, funded by wealthy GOP Congressman Darrell Issa, as the latest in a string of right-wing Republican efforts to deny office to Democrats.

"This recall is larger than just California. It's something that's been going on nationally for some time," Davis said. "The Republicans couldn't beat President Clinton in 1996, so they tried to impeach him in '98. In 2000, it looked like Al Gore might actually win, but they stopped the vote count in Florida. Here in California, I won the election fair and square, and now nine months later Republicans who financed this recall through Darrell Issa are trying to seize control."

just before presidential elections."

He also diverted from politics to talk about his life, including his parents' divorce, the time he spends with his wife and a boyhood baseball coach.

who influenced him as a boy.

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