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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis Shows He's Still on Top of His Game

September 10, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SAN DIEGO — It's a sure sign things are going well for a politician when he is introduced at a ballgame and doesn't get booed out of the park.

Then you really know the guy's in a groove when he throws out the first pitch and doesn't bounce it off the dirt. He actually tosses a strike.

That's the kind of season it has been for Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, who leads Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in virtually every poll. (Davis 49%, Lungren 37% in the latest Field Poll.)

Davis was a picture of concentration and confidence Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium, where 19,393 fans showed up to watch the San Diego Padres play the San Francisco Giants. (Giants 5, Padres 4.)

The Padres' owner, software mogul John Moores, is a big Davis fan who has contributed more than $100,000 to his campaign. "I told him," Davis says, " 'Just give me the money and I'll win. I've never lost a general election.' "

Confidence--even at the prospect of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a Labor Day crowd. Not only was there a rusty arm to worry about, but nobody enjoys booing more than a baseball fan. And at a ballpark, a politician usually ranks one step lower than an umpire.

"I try to keep my candidates out of ballparks," says Garry South, Davis' veteran campaign manager. "Politicians' instincts are to go because they've got a captive audience. Then they get in everybody's face and they get booed and they get embarrassed. It's particularly risky [for a Democrat] in a place like San Diego."

"Booing was our biggest fear," concedes Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante. "That and throwing the ball. Over the middle of the plate is a metaphor for the campaign. Conversely, 11 feet to the left . . . "

*

Davis was smart enough to find a Padres cap and don it just before walking onto the field. It's tougher for fans to boo somebody who's showing support for the home team.

What fascinated me, standing out there in front of the Padres' dugout--besides just being there, wide-eyed like a kid--was watching Davis' calm and concentration.

He left nothing to chance. The candidate arrived early, picked up a ball, walked up to a coach and asked if he could toss him a few. He borrowed a glove from a bat girl and warmed up along the first base line for about 10 minutes. Gradually, he increased his range to about 50 feet, the distance he'd be throwing from just in front of the pitcher's mound. All the while, he was grinning and occasionally clowning with the Padres' mascot.

I was reminded that while the pale, slim Davis may not look like a jock, he is one. And he has a good athlete's discipline. In high school, he swam, played basketball and captained the baseball team at shortstop. At Stanford, he was a four-handicap golfer.

At Qualcomm, he roughed up a new ball and walked to the mound as the PA announcer called out his name. What? No boos. Well, maybe two or three, drowned out by applause and cheers.

His eye focused on the catcher, Davis wound up and hurled the ball down the middle of the plate, belt high.

"That was my goal," he said later, devouring a hot dog in the owner's box. "Over the plate--without hitting the ground or anybody. A centrist pitch, moderate and pragmatic. In step with California."

A politician-pitcher never can lay off the spin.

*

It is possible to overreach here. This, after all, was just a rare moment of fun on the campaign circuit.

But there did seem something symbolic about Davis' pitch, because of the planning and determination that went into it. True, a politician needs luck. Davis got lucky when neither Sen. Dianne Feinstein nor Mayor Richard Riordan ran, and Al Checchi spent millions trashing Rep. Jane Harman. But to capitalize on luck, a candidate also needs a strategy and tenacity.

Look at the scorecard: Davis insisted on running when few gave him a chance. When President Clinton called Feinstein and urged her to run, Davis immediately called contributors and asked for more money. Then he resisted their pressure and saved it until the right moment. He thought up the year's best slogan, "Experience money can't buy." Then, against his strategists' advice, he kept "experience" in his fall campaign theme--"Experience that will move us forward"--and it has clicked. He brought in Clinton to raise $3.5 million for him right before the president hit the scandal skids.

This season has nearly eight weeks to go. That's plenty of time for Davis to start throwing wild pitches--or for Lungren to begin making better pitches. But right now, as he showed at Qualcomm, Davis has good control and fan support.

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